The End of His Story?

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“All this violence, the inner cities, the school shootings – it’s always the same weapons, the AR-15 and so on, the assault rifles… you make then unattainable, well, you’ve gone a long way to solving the problem… so why don’t these politicians do it? You got to face the fact that someone wants this shit to go on, the killing, the terror of our kids… they do say that fear is what feeds a police state, the kind of high security admin situation that someone like Trump wants in place… if his daughter got blown away you might see some action on guns – ‘til then though you’re going to see nothing…”

 

–       Caleb Bencher (Florida)

 

“More folks die in traffic accidents every day, we’re going to ban the car? Of course not. We need more guns not fewer… have armed guards in every school… a gun is the only protection any of us have got against these terrorist…”

 

–       Henry Posner (National Rifle Association)

 

 

O, America! You’re

supposedly a democracy, aren’t you? Have a referendum on this gun

issue, it’s the democratic way – see what the people really think and want.

Then, whatever the result, at least we’ll know who bears the tragic flaw, who

in fact wants this slaughter to continue on forever. But I suspect

Washington fears to have what the people really want etched there in stone

for all the world to see – for the government has no interest in what the

people want, and it rarely ever has. This explains the vested interest in

stupidity for the masses that every administration since Roosevelt has

displayed in a concerted and wholly successful attack on education. If the state schools are bad the working poor attending them won’t get any smarter, will they? And further assisting this stupidity drive, many will drop out of crummy schools around Grade Nine or Ten, certified for life as dumb. When you’re dumb, politics, the economy, etc etc, are beyond your ken, outside your sphere of reference – which encompasses sports, maybe religion (invariably fundamentalist Christian), hunting, food, possibly drink and maybe vacations in the US. Perhaps you see voting in elections as a waste of time; perhaps you always vote for the party that convinces you it’s on your side? This is always the Republican Party, whose candidates are always schooled in what you want (but almost never give it to you – and you always seem to forget or overlook this betrayal). The corporate-owned media see to it that your position of extravagant stupidity is never lampooned, or not cruelly, and indeed extolled in numberless dramas as a paragon to be aspired to by all invisibly indentured Americans, the wage-slaves who are the nation – but, alas, the nation isn’t them. Docility, steady work and obedience are guaranteed by the vast range of loans they all have to pay into each month, the mortgages, rents, health insurance, pensions, car loans, kids’ education fees and all the other rabid but unforeseen drains on the wallet to which we’re all vulnerable heirs. A thousand sources say this is the way, the truth and the life all yearn to live – and if you don’t or can’t read, how can you ever discover it may not be all they say it is? You do what your friends do, vote for the person who claims to be all about you and your needs, but remaining loyal and undeterred when they prove to have been fibbers (but not for themselves, f course, but rather because of unexpected situations arising during their term). In effect, the blue-collar masses always vote against their own interests, which are best represented by policies of the more liberal-minded. It’s a mystery. But the overall subtext of TV and video broadcasts clears up the mystery. Not all but most programs or shows reflect values, celebrate and endorse the situational plight of a proletariat oppressed and exploited by Big Business — without them even knowing it, which shows you how well-planned and successful the scheme is. This is the truth about most of America – and few dare

utter it, none of this few ever allowed to utter it on major media.

 

As in Britain and elsewhere in the West particularly, education is for a monied elite, those who can effortlessly afford the vertiginous fees of private schools, where classes are small (less than a quarter of those in the best state schools), the syllabi rigorous, useful and thorough. These schools of course feed the major universities (the lesser ones are mostly all businesses in disguise, profit their only real concern, their decrees scarcely worth the paper they’re on), where fees are a struggle for the poorer students, many of who are paying off loans into their forties or beyond. It is a system designed solely for the wealthy, to ensure their caste remains near the apex of our social pyramid (which once all North Americans could climb, but now all are discouraged and even prevented legally from climbing it –  just as they do in Europe to keep the strata stratified). It is blatantly iniquitous, this system, and until it is dismantled – all receiving the same education – society will not evolve or adapt well to a rapidly evolving global world. Private schools are the principal problem here, and there is no rational justification for their continued existence if a society is truly egalitarian. Poverty is a part of this problem too, though, and one of its solutions may well be a guaranteed universal wage, the sum paid to all regardless of their situation and without a means test. Small-scale experiments – conducted here in Manitoba – have shown that a major effect of this guaranteed income is people returning to school or college, or else continuing on with an education without fear of a chronically reduced income. Of course there are those who say why give people money for nothing – it’s unnatural and encourages the idle. But the vast subsidies paid out to  large businesses are generally money handed out for nothing. For that matter so is inherited wealth. Descendants do nothing generally to earn their inheritances – which are sometimes fabulous – yet these same people denigrate those who receive a guaranteed income to help them out of poverty, and for which they have done nothing – if caring for sick relatives, raising children, cleaning homes, pursuing a course of study, and so on are nothing. In fact just cutting subsidies to big businesses – which often use this money to pay executives ridiculously inflated salaries – would in itself finance the guaranteed universal income, which is still the only sure way to date for a practical eradication of poverty and its concomitant transformation of society. Naturally, though, I don’t expect this to happen, not soon and not ever – for those we elect to govern us, not all but most of them, either are or become beholden to the cash from big business interests, the real powers that be, whose interests are all too well known and immovably rigid when it comes to certain issues. This is far more true in America than it is in Canada, but the cautionary tale so much easier to see is still indispensable here. Just watching the pathetic spectacle of a distraught public pleading for Washington to do something about guns is a grim warning of how easily things can slide – with a President tweeting that the FBI is to blame for not following through with tips about the latest shooter, and this was because all 33,000 of their special agents were tied up being obsessed with the Russian collusion red herring. God, how do Americans tolerate this?

 

Stupidity would be one answer, although it’s spread over different areas, like the nationalist fervour that makes some reluctant to criticize the leader, or a class-bond with the ruling elite that chooses not to tarnish the GOP by broadcasting about the very bad apple in its current barrel. These are all forms of stupidity, whose brand burgeons by the day all over the world, and is the sole cause of social injustice and inequity. If you don’t support the abolition of private schools, for example, you’re stupid – because being part of the problem is just plain dumb. Ditto if you believe society has to be stratified, since people are not born equal or independent. Ditto if you have convinced yourself that some lead, some follow, and the rest should get out of the way. And ditto if you feel big profits justify fraud, deception, shoddy goods sold for top dollar, a thousand percent or more mark-ups, and any other felony or shameful practice you wouldn’t want practised on yourself. There are more of course, but the point is made. It is really all quite simple, this transformation of society from inequity to true egalitarianism, from plutocracy to real democracy; but it will never happen with the systems as they are – and a system will never change unless society itself is changed. It is a vicious circle, one leading only to even greater misery, really oppressive tyranny, vaster inequality, greater divisiveness, or of course bloody revolution – and these never work out well, assuming that when one nightmare is gone utopia ensues. No, an even worse hell takes over, and a dystopia no one has yet thought up ensues. You can see the problem. This latest gun issue is it in microcosm. Have the referendum – it’s clearly the only fair, reasonable and appropriately democratic course of action, isn’t it? What possible objection could there be? But will it happen? No, not in a dozen millennia. Why not? Well, this is the tricky part: the answer is because the United States is not a democracy by any stretch of the term, and it never has been. The electoral system is merely an elaborate guise to bamboozle the masses into believing the PR, when in fact two parties is an alternative not a choice, and the alternative is no alternative at all – look at the mass of congressmen and women: they’re all from the same caste, with some tokenism thrown in to make it deniable. These are not representative Americans, not remotely. Elections are easily rigged too, not that they really need to be rigged – no one undesirable ever runs for office. Win or lose, if you’re a ruler the government doesn’t change – it merely appears to change, usually by the character and personality of the leader, not – God forbid! – by any policy changes. US foreign policy has been consistent since the seventies, and economic policies have never veered far from a course set back in the late forties. You might assume from this that Americans don’t want change, but that is transparently untrue – a glance at the catastrophic conditions in cities shows you this, as does the decay of industry and the steep rise in unemployment. No, things don’t change because America’s rulers mostly serve those who are staunchly resistant to change, not per se but because the current deplorable state is good for business – their businesses of course. And these biggest businesses are the greatest of all worries: the arms trade, or the military-industrial complex, and now supply and logistics companies to keep a privatized army in all the things it used to do for itself, from rations to highly trained security personnel, men and occasionally women who fight for $1,000 a day alongside grunts earning a government salary of less than $100. It ought to give the military an idea of how it’s viewed these days – as an outfit ripe for replacement by robots – but a soldier’s code (aka brainwashing) instills a patriotism so fierce any criticism of the government is like wiping your ass on the flag. But do the math. Big Corporations = arms biz = government = perpetual war= ever-growing profits = dividends for shareholders = big corporations. The money-flow is circular, progenitors being the ultimate recipients too. But the system still depends on a proletariat to function at all – although this may soon change with robotic automation and other new technologies. So if change is to be it needs to come soon, or the cachet of labour will vanish, and with it all leverage. But change is not to be if so simple and rational a thing as banning assault rifles will never happen because too many in Congress are in the pocket of the National Rifle Association, one of the numerous very wealthy lobby groups that are also among the first things an y intelligent person would abolish in order to make government more viable. But they won’t go either, and because naked greed predominates in the upper echelons of American society – which in turn hands more power over to the ultra-rich. Another vicious circle; another condemnation of the moral character Americans love to flaunt as if they’d invented it – and usually as if they possessed it. I see a nation asleep down there, with no one at the wheel, each one thinking someone else will steer, so no one will ever steer. How terminally sad is it to see an entire country grieving over – what? – the 87th school shooting in a year, and wondering what to do about this malaise; then discovering that stronger gun controls will actually help immensely; and finally finding that this will never happen, the carnage will continue, many more children will die, and all because your elected representatives rely on handouts from the gun lobby to prop up their high lifestyles and bolster campaign funds? Is there anything sadder? Well, there is: the parents of those dead children who find their government mutters platitudes and says empty prayers, but does nothing useful at all – because it doesn’t really give a shit about kids in the morgue or their grieving kin. All those suits and ties care about is money – and that is not sad, it’s fantastically monstrous! Land of the Brave, Home of the Free? How anyone can sing those words with a straight face these days baffles and appalls me.

 

Paul William Roberts

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State of Disunion

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This was certainly the winter of my discontent: flu that turned to pneumonia and had me feeling like the Death of Chatterton for over a month. But the year stretching out behind it – and now surrounding it – seems so much more dispiriting. I cannot recall a time when North Americans, indeed westerners in general, seemed more despairing about their present and its future. In America, the fabric of governance is in tatters, every move of even the least significant pawn so partisan in nature that you cannot trust its intent. The media seem reluctant to inform us that, say, the FBI-Russian-Collusion probe is largely a Democrat operation; and no wonder – the moment you find this out the whole venture seems suspect. Similarly with Trump’s alleged achievements: when it’s only Republicans braying about them – and nothing seems certain in the White House anymore anyway – you tend to cease listening. Election promises or threats are still on Trump’s to do list, continually edged downwards and periodically restored to seem like urgent preoccupations. Everyone knows that such promises are what you say to get elected, not usually anything you think of as important. But there is too little attention paid to what Trump clearly does regard as important, and with which he can be said to have achieved some considerable success – if you’re prepared to accept that his hidden agenda does not remotely resemble his stated agenda. Steve Bannon may have become Sloppy Steve and no longer work in the White House, but the reason for these slights and his ouster is not what it’s said to be. As the Michael Wolf tell-all-but-say-nothing blab about the administration makes abundantly clear – when nothing else in the tome is at all clear – is that Bannon is a master strategist, the Machiavelli behind Trump’s disobedient Prince, the only man who knows where all the skeletons are hidden and how the century’s greatest political coup was accomplished. They still talk every day of course, and it’s anyone’s guess to what extent Bannon still remains helmsman. But he was too great a media distraction, even though you scarcely heard of him after the election, and too easy a target for a media in desperate search, as always, for someone to blame. A nexus of unpalatable influences converge in Bannon, who can be said to be their conduit into the Oval Office – particularly that of Mercer, the shadowy billionaire hedge funder whose avowed intent is to dismantle the institutions of US governance, reduce the administration to a parochial think-tank, and turn back the clock to around 1918 – no welfare, no feminism, no civil rights , no LGBTQ, and no impediments to the carpetbaggers, fiduciary pirates, and sundry other predators out to fleece the country and to own it more completely, with less hurdles to jump, than they already do. Mercer, a Trump eminence grise, has been unguardedly open about his wish-thinking in the past, so we know some of the strategy and tactics that appeal to him. You put men in charge of departments they are known to scorn and believe worthless. You fire key figures in departments, men who may be relatively unknown but are utterly vital to their departments, and you do not replace them. You stack the judiciary with reliable men, men who will do what they’re told to do and not what their conscience dictates. And you whittle away at everything until the dross is gone. For power lies off the radar, in under-secretaries and assistants to the mighty. He who controls the judiciary truly holds the reins and can shape the future. Figureheads come and go, but the real power remains. If you look at the more seemingly boring things Trump has done, fiddling with this department and that department, you will be forced to conclude that the Bannon-Mercer strategy has been rather successfully implemented. You have a climate-change-denier running the EPA, for example, and you have a Secretary of State committed to reducing staff at the State Department by up to fifty percent (the numbers can’t be trusted anymore), with many of those let go important section heads whose sections will effectively cease to exist without them. This is the Trump agenda and it is moving along quite nicely out of the media glare, and never tweeted about, for the tweets are a smokescreen few journalists seem willing to fully comprehend, taking the bait every morning like fish-time in the penguin cage. These are the real reasons for American despair.

 

David Frum has a new book too, TRUMPOCRACY, a speculative foray into the presidency – although Frum would never admit to speculating. He always seems to have an eye for which side his bread is buttered on, this determining where his loyalties lie any given year. His consistency is at best punctuated, but he does seem to have concluded there’s no butter for him on Trump’s slice, a conclusion that, as he tells it, leads inexorably to the end of his once-loved Republican Party and America’s destruction. He hadn’t reached this conclusion even months after the election and inauguration, so you must assume that something has happened to change his changeable mind. As editor of the Atlantic Monthly, Frum must have some solid channels to the more influential people in Congress, where the word is that a movement exists to found a new party – the taint of Trump regarded as an indelible Republican stain, impervious to rehabilitation. Frum is always engaging, bright and perceptive, yet his books invariably contain the screech of axes being ground somewhere in the background. Here he makes interesting points about the consequences of a fractured or irrelevant party – it will leave Trump more powerful than ever – but his attempt to leave the reader concluding that obviously a new party is needed veers the argument away from fruitful territory and into trackless bush, where some wise old shaman keeps asking you if a new party is really going to solve the old dilemma. Despair from left and right, thick and fast, and no one keeping an eye on the real damage done daily.

 

Up here in the Great White North we are fomenting our own modest despair with two opposition parties that seem to have forgotten they’re supposed to have a purpose beyond the knee-jerk opposition to whatever the governing Liberals do or don’t do. At best a Grade 10 debating society in a querulous, unruly part of town, Parliament increasingly resembles proceedings of the Lilliputian senate, or whatever it was, regarding which end of a boiled egg ought to be cracked open. No one ventures to speak the truth: it actually doesn’t matter which end you crack. Everyone merely looks to see which side they should be on, and then argues for it vehemently, as if they care passionately. Our Conservatives have a good idea of where they must always stand – less taxes, more ethics, blah-blah – which leaves the New Democrats (so au courant and edgy they elected a turbaned Sikh as leader) in the only position requiring some deep thought and ingenuity to come up with objections to the Liberals that the Tories haven’t or couldn’t raise themselves. We’re still waiting for one of these bombshells to explode in Ottawa. In truth, all three parties brandish policies that are remarkably similar, since the most pressing problems all have similar and manifestly obvious solutions – usually money. With surprising persistence the Liberals have forged ahead with a plan to right every wrong since Contact, and if you only listen to the CBC you would get the impression that Indigenous issues, gender equality, LGBTQ-Two-Spirit (and whatever else) rights, and so on were the only problems we face. So far towards guilt and fairness has the pendulum swung that you fear for the backlash when it comes, as it most certainly will. For this policy has ignored the very people who Trump identified as his base in the US, the blue-collar working Canadians who regard themselves, perhaps wrongly, as this country’s founders. Just as the US Democrats began to shun their own base, the unions and proletariat, preferring to cobble together a second hierarchy of achievers, experts, lawyers and economists – a caste who all believe the same things and dominate public discourse – so the Liberals here have similarly formed a central corpus of new-money elites who pretend concern for the working class but in reality applaud entrepreneurship, innovation, and the championing of banner concerns, like the Indigenous, that no one in the opposition parties dares to criticize for fear of politically incorrect exile and banishment. Once the First Nations realized someone was actually listening, their complaints came thick and fast, the more easily soluble ones acted on with a haste amounting to folly, but many of the others getting tangled up in related problems that spawn committee after committee – because no one can admit they may prove insoluble. Far easier to take down the statue of Cornwallis, founder of Halifax, at the request of Mig-Maw representatives who pointed out that Cornwallis, beside his more laudable achievements, was also a racist bastard intent on exterminating the Indigenous, who he regarded as not human, as the Jesuit missionaries did (you have to be baptized to be human, apparently). Renaissance intellectual and statesman Thomas More – author of UTOPIA – believed that people who said the Communion host was just a piece of bread and not the body of Christ ought to be tortured and burned alive. It is unlikely that anyone now thinks he was right about this, yet statues of him still stand in London and portraits hang in museums, not to celebrate his rectitude but to acknowledge that, as Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, and a prominent man of his time, his role in history can never be denied. If you don’t like the past – and anyone studying it can hardly find our ancestors a heartwarming spectacle – you don’t have to; but you can’t erase it. Facts are facts, and always will be – until Steve Bannon becomes Czar. I suggested to the Mayor of Halifax that one of the many fine Mig-Maw artists – like Ursula Johnson – be commissioned to create a work around or near the Cornwallis statue to elucidate his darker side, like the bounty he set on dead Indians, so that visitors will be apprised of the whole story. Apparently Ursula Johnson herself also favoured this solution. But no. The issue became something other than what it was about, a test of wills and a flexing of newly-acquired muscle, so the statue came down and will presumably be gathering dust in some government warehouse into the next millennium, while history smarts, and those forgotten Canadians who prize their history – or what little they know of it – feel snubbed, pushed to the back of the line in favour of the politically correct darlings, people they view as parasites expecting eternal compensation for grievances stretching into the mists of time. This will not end well, and it is highly inadvisable for any government to overlook one disaffected group for another. This sudden righting of old wrongs smacks of a guilt that may be felt keenly by liberal elites, but is not such a pressing issue for those whose awareness of current events is sketchy and sporadic, yet who nonetheless, rightly or wrongly, regard themselves as the builders of this modern nation. No one should say the Indigenous have no grievances. But no one should ignore the grievances building in other quarters for entirely different – but not dismissible – reasons, grievances that a Trump could and would use as the foundation of his base and a time when the pendulum will swing so far back in the other direction it will be hard to believe it was ever anywhere else. Division in society is no way to protect the frail thing we call democracy, which is still the exception in this troubled, directionless world.

 

Concomitant with all this is the Me Too or Time’s Up tyranny, in which an allegation, even one reporting an event decades ago, with no recourse to the Law or law enforcement, is deemed sufficient to destroy a career and deprive someone of their livelihood. This is not good for the world either. If someone is accused of theft or fraud it will go to the law before any judgement is made, as will virtually every other felony or misdemeanor. Even pedophiles are granted a day in court – but not the suspect of sexual impropriety, or, more troublingly, the prominent member of society thus suspected (and usually in the entertainment business, which we seem to regard as the only real prominence that exists). I agree with the brilliant Cambridge classicist, Margaret Beard – author of WOMEN AND POWER – who says that these men should be publically shamed, obliged to confess the error of their ways, and promise never to do it again. In most cases, that’s surely enough, no? You go up to Kevin Spacey’s hotel room and he makes a pass at you – what did you expect? – and twenty years later you decide this flaw in judgement should warrant destroying his career and probably ruining the rest of his life, not to mention robbing the world of a fine actor? Huh? Am I missing something? The victim seems to be more deserving of punishment for thinking one trifle warrants Armageddon. You think of the mobs eagerly attending burnings and guillotinings, and you are forced to concede that public opinion counts for very little. The whole business also overlooks the fact that men and women may be equal in the eyes of the law, but they are still very different. It’s physiology and anthropology. A man can father two or more children a day if he wishes; a woman has one shot and then it’s a year or more out of action. This reflects something deep in the DNA, which hasn’t ever really changed and, whether we like it ot not, tells us our only real purpose here as animals is to reproduce. Our tragic flaw is the mind which persuades us we can aspire to higher goals, yet the mind’s vehicle is a body that knows nothing more than sex and food. The dichotomy can be blamed for all our woes as a species; and it ought to be taken into account when unwanted advances or comments come up. The peacock struts about with his jewelled tail feathers waving at all the hens. The man feels compelled to further his vestigial mission to spread the seed at every opportunity. Our nature may well be changing, but it will be thousands of years before anyone will be able to determine that for certain. In the meantime, history will remain history, and men will be governed for much of their lives by animal instincts seemingly beyond conscious control, and, let’s face it, not viewed as repellant by all women. The suppression of reality is not good for the world, which changes at its own pace. You don’t go to China for a trade deal and dictate all the politically correct changes the Chinese will have to make to get that deal. They famously dislike any interference in their internal affairs, just as Henry VIII would have been outraged if the Emperor of China told him to stop racking, flaying and boiling his subjects alive. Change comes little by little. We shall have to see if the current male wariness around women can override the boiling reptile instinct to hump – and then be equal again.

 

I shall leave the midden of Europe and the trembling of Britain until a later date – or never. My very best for the coming year.

 

Paul William Roberts

 

robertspaulwilliam@gmail.com     

A Karole Christmas

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Here is a story for the holidays, an old one adapted and updated – not that it needed to be, but because I have to amuse myself, don’t I? It’s a first draft, so forgive the flaws.

 

A KAROLE CHRISTMAS

 

By Paul William Roberts

 

Since 1962, Karole Toys had, in one way or another, celebrated A Karole Christmas, not just as a tribute to the season during which the company sold fifty percent of its toys and made fifty percent of its profits, but as a gesture of gratitude towards its loyal customers, people who, as marketing studies from the late seventies on began to show, returned as parents to buy the Karole toys they remembered fondly from childhood, and would return again when they were grandparents, eventually even when some were great-grandparents. The first celebration, organized by old man Karole, had been in the windows of Laban’s department store in downtown Montreal, not far from the company’s headquarters. It had been an extravaganza of fake snow, plastic icicles and glinting glitter, with mannequin parents seated around a fire of pulsing electric coals, while a mannequin Santa and doll elves beneath a giant Christmas tree doled out gifts to a pair of mannequin children, who had already opened several gaily-wrapped Karole toys. It was the perfect family enjoying their perfect Christmas in a perfectly lovely setting. The window display attracted much attention and even won an award (the Canadian Window Dressers Prize – a chrome-plated plastic mannequin). This prompted a repeat performance the following year, now involving animated mannequins and a train set whose puffing locomotive went round and around and around, through a mountainous landscape with silver lakes and bijoux little matchstick villages. Again the window dressers award was secured, but added to by the far more prestigious American Display Artiste of the Year prize (a medallion in silver), an accolade that not only boosted Karole’s US sales but also caught the eye of Gunter Shuldig, creator of Huskies, the beloved cartoon strip about a wild and wacky all-American family. Back then, of course, the cartoon was just starting out, not syndicated and only appearing in the Bangor Bugle, a Maine newspaper with a mysteriously large readership in Montreal. Shuldig, who then lived in lower Westmount, greatly admired the Laban windows, and he suggested to old man Karole that he, Shuldig, should design and construct the next Karole Christmas display using characters from his own Huskies strip. Old man Karole couldn’t see why not, so Shuldig went to work, moulding figures from fibre glass and balsa wood. The resulting window was spectacular, a living cartoon, this time garnering international media notice. Other department stores around North America and one in London all wanted similar displays for the next season. It is difficult to say if this was what helped both the Huskies and Karole Toys to become leading international brands, but it was certainly concomitant with it. From there, it was not such a great leap to the animated TV special, A Karole Christmas, which, owing to a typo in TV Guide, became known as A Christmas Karole, with music by Gil Davis, and the voices of Orlie Husting, Beng Doberman and Krik Leehodden (who, when they became the big stars we know now, would often joke about the three-dollar royalty cheque they still received from the network each year). The show proved so popular, and was so abidingly popular too, that it was broadcast again the following December, and has of course been a Christmas staple ever since. As agreed in the original contract – which the network’s legal team ought to have read more carefully – Karole Toys was allowed to purchase two minutes of advertising time during every broadcast of the show for one dollar – regardless of the fact that the special itself was a gigantic ad for the company. To be fair, no one could have predicted then that the show and the contractual subsection would run forever. All the same, and despite lawyerly attempts to remove the clause, Karole Toys took full advantage of this sneaky perquisite for the next fifty-odd Christmas Seasons — and counting. Until his death in 2010, Gunter Shuldig had been similarly unsuccessful with his legal attempt to have the show retitled something like A Huskies Christmas. Still based in Montreal, Karole Toys burgeoned, it bodied out, spawn everywhere, subdivisions all over North America, in Britain, across the European Union and even in Russia. It soon became the Karole Corporation International (dabbling in real estate and construction as well), but it remained privately owned, the majority shareholder and CEO always a member of the Karole family. For nearly a year now, this has been Karl Karole, 52-year-old grandson of Jeremiah Karole, the founder.

Since the

broadcast of A Christmas Karole always coincides with a steep uptick in profits, it has long been a tradition in Karole headquarters to hold the annual Christmas party on the same evening, with the show watched by drunken employees on a screen that got larger every year and is now a whole wall in the corporation’s conference hall on the 47th floor. Anyone who has worked at Karole for more than a few years knows the show’s dialogue by heart, and some people wll offer ribald variants on it in an allegedly hilarious fashion. One year someone in graphics produced a stop-motion fake ad showing the company’s famous Dirk and Debbie dolls copulating, cleverly managing to play this wheeze on the big screen during a commercial break. The lavish party is also when annual bonuses are handed out; and thanks to the profit-sharing scheme initiated by old man Karole’s son, Kleinholtz, these bonuses can be very large indeed. Door prizes at the party are similarly generous, with no one going home empty-handed, and not a few in possession of new Rolex watches or Tiffany diamond pins. The food is a sumptuous banquet catered by whoever the top people in town are this year; champagne literally flows from actual fountains; and the open bar is still serving cocktails at dawn, when a breakfast feast is wheeled in, its skirling fanfare played on bagpipes. There are thus many reasons to anticipate the Karole Christmas Party with a glee bordering on the febrile. But, alas, all this is about to change.

It is Christmas Eve, the day of this year’s party, the night of the beloved broadcast. Karl Karole, new CEO, majority shareholder, sits behind the mahogany acre of his desk staring fixedly at a two-inch-thick pile of paper that is the only thing resembling work on its expansive gleaming surface. There are picture windows on three sides of this vast office, with automatic electronic blinds inside the thermal panes activated by sunlight. Now they are all wide open, these blinds, as an indigo twilight descends on the world. To his right, far below, the slow broad St. Lawrence River begins to sparkle, as lights strung along the banks start to twinkle on. The year’s first snow is falling in fat white feathers, some of them sticking to the windows, where they slowly die, melting away into droplets that slide down out of sight to drip on dispirited pedestrians. Tomorrow I’ll be in Florida, Karl thinks, far from this boring building, out of this wretched climate and away from a stupid season infested by even stupider people. He picks up the pile of paper and fans its pages, throwing them down again, running his fingertips across the bold lettering on top: An Agreement Between the Karole Corporation International and Shanghai Galaxy of China Limited on the Sale of Karole Toys International. Pink Post-It notes protrude like tongues from the side facing him to mark those pages requiring his signature. He takes the fat black Montblanc Meisterstuck fountain pen from its bed on a gold tray, unscrews its cap, flips the contract open to its first pink fin and goes to scribble his signature on the line indicated by a pencilled X. Damn it all! The iridium-gold nib only makes ghostly indentations on the paper. Where the hell is ink when you need it? On an intercom he summons in Marie-Claire, an assistant, a new one hired the previous month, telling her to go buy ink.

‘For the printer?’ she says, glancing down nervously at the I-Phone in her hand.

Karl Karole’s lip curls. Furrows form below his greying hairline as his eyebrows strive to meet up with it. ‘I don’t have a printer, Mary,’ he says through gritted teeth white as pearls. ‘You think I sit in here printing out shit all day long, do you?’

‘No sir,’ says Marie-Claire, her knees trembling beneath the woollen kilt. ‘I mean, I don’t know, sir…’

‘No,’ says Karl, ‘you don’t, do you? Well, rest assured, I don’t do that. The ink, Mary, is for my fountain pen.’ He holds up the Montblanc and waves it like a wand. Marie-Claire knits her brows and squints, clearly trying to ascertain what exactly it is he holds. ‘What’s the matter, Mary?’ he says.

Her expression is pained. ‘I’m not quite sure what you mean, sir,’ she says.

Karl rises, he traverses his enormous desk, he advances on the girl, pen in hand, snarl on face. ‘Now,’ he says, ‘be so kind as to tell me, Mary, which part of “Go buy ink for my pen” you don’t understand…’

‘I’ve never used that sort of pen, sir,’ she tells him, now enveloped in the stale, bitter odour emanating from Mr. Karole’s mouth. His flinty glare urges her to add, ‘So I’m not sure where you buy…’ But the new look on his ruddy face advises her to stop.

He pulls the gold watch on its chain from a pocket in his navy-blue cashmere pin-striped waistcoat, flipping open its cover to consult the face. Marie-Claire has never seen such a watch before. ‘It is nearly ten past four,’ Mary,’ he says, replacing the watch and looking up at her with a somewhat amazed expression. ‘Assuming they close at five, that gives you fifty minutes in which to buy a bottle of Montblanc ink and return here with it. Now,’ he goes on, waggling the pen between thumb and forefinger, ‘I am loathe to think there’s any part of that you’ve failed to grasp, but do say now if there is…’

Marie-Claire is uncertain of the response this requires, so she simply smiles sweetly and says, ‘I’m so looking forward to the party tonight, aren’t you, sir?’

‘Aren’t I what?’ he says, eyes narrowed.

‘Looking forward to the Christmas party…’

‘Mary,’ he snarls, ‘go and buy the goddam ink!’

She goes, and is obliged to consult some other assistants about the nature and purpose of her errand before she fully understands what it is she’s been told to do. She asks one woman, Bess, tentatively if Mr. Karole is always rather frightening to deal with. ‘No,’ says Bess, ‘he’s usually just very unpleasant…’ She provides a salutary example of this:

BESS: I’ve come about Selina’s sexual harassment complaint…

KK: Bah! She’s always complaining about something. What now?

BESS: It’s about her mail slot…

KK: God! She wants it gilded?

BESS: No sir. Riordan from Accounting made an inappropriate sexual innuendo regarding it – which made her ill and damaged the quality of her life…

KK: How the hell do you harass a mail slot?

BESS: It’s how you spell mail, sir…

KK: How the hell else can you spell it?

BESS: He said he’d like to put something else in her mail slot…

KK: Yes?

BESS: That’s harassment…

KK: Jesus Christ! What kind of drooling morons do I have out there? That’s not harassment – that’s just a puerile, sophomoric attempt at humour…

BESS: No sir. That’s sexual harassment…

KK: Have you ever been sexually harassed, Miss… whatever your name is?

BESS: No sir.

KK: Have you ever been kicked through a window on the 59th floor?

BESS: No sir.

KK: Then add 2 and 2 together – and get the hell out of my sight…

‘Oh,’ says Marie-Claire. ‘I see…’

Karl Karole has just resumed his throne-like chair behind the desk when the intercom tells him that Melvin Chior urgently wants to see him. Mel is one of the corporation’s six VPs, so Karl tells the machine to send him in. ‘Yes?’ he says, without looking up, when he’s heard his door open and close.

‘It’s about the party, sir,’ says Mel, whose grey pants are slightly too short and flap above his loafers.

‘What about it?’ Karl says snappily, still apparently studying the document in front of him.

‘Well, sir,’ ventures Mel, straightening his red Dacron tie unnecessarily, ‘I’m in charge of organizing it this year…’

‘So what?’ says Karl, still looking down. ‘Who cares who’s organizing it?’

Melvin Chior grows edgy, stammering a little. ‘It’s j-just that some p-problems have arisen…’

‘Then deal with them, Chior,’ snaps Karl, eyes down. ‘Don’t bother me with them. That’s what you’re paid for, isn’t it, dealing with things?’

‘It’s in fact pay that’s the problem, sir…’

‘Really?’ Now he looks up, something hard behind his black eyes. ‘If you’re seeking a raise, the answer’s no…’

‘Oh no, it’s not that, sir,’ Mel says hastily. ‘It’s the b-bonus cheques…’

‘What about them?’

‘I went to c-collect them f-from Accounting,’ Mel explains, ‘so I could g-give them out tonight…’

‘Yes?’ Impatience creaks in his voice.

‘So Mr. Garley s-said I should see y-you about the b-bonuses…’

‘Stop that goddam stammering!’ Karl slams a palm on the tooled leather desktop. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘you’re seeing me. And?’ This last word booms out and bounces off the window panes.

‘Ab-bout the bonuses…sir?’

Bonuses?’ Karl repeats, as if unfamiliar with the term. ‘There are none this year, Chior. Anything else? I don’t have time to sit here yacking with you all day. And Karole employees do not wear loafers! The corporate code clearly states black lace-up wingtips…’

‘Sorry, sir.’ He bends his knees, trying in vain to hide the shoes beneath his pant legs. B-but,’ says Mel, unsure now what he ought to say, ‘we always get bonuses at the party, sir. People r-rely on them. And there’s… there’s the profit-sharing too, sir… the profit-sharing your father started…’

Karl Karole is now staring at him with an expression of blank astonishment. ‘I am in charge now, in case this has escaped your attention over the past year, Chior. Those days are over,’ he says, the words a whispered hiss. ‘Whatever my father did is over, just as he’s over. Kaput! Understand? If there’s nothing else, Chior, I’m busy.’ He returns his gaze to the desk.

‘God,’ says Mel, shocked.

‘Don’t bring him into it! And buy yourself some pants that fit…’

Mel blurts it out: ‘It’s just that I texted the caterer to confirm what time they’re arriving…’

‘Yes?’ Karl looks up again, outrage now printed on his face.

‘Well, sir,’ says Mel, ‘they t-told me the event had been cancelled three months ago…’

Lips in a taut and unamused smile. ‘Yes,’ Karl says, ‘I cancelled it – too expensive! Much too. Is that all?’

Mel is stunned, too stunned to remember propriety. ‘There’s g-going to be no food or refreshments at the p-party?’ he says, the rest of what he has to say, if anything, flapping around his mouth much as his pants do around his ankles.

Karl sneers. ‘Did I say that?’ he demands. ‘Mrs. Corbiere is arranging all the food and drink…’

‘Mrs. Corbiere?’ Mel repeats, flabbergasted (she’s the old woman who operates a sandwich-and-coffee trolley in the corporate tower, a service largely patronized by people who feel sorry for her – or anyone who actually likes spam and a soft tomato slice between two slabs of old Wonderbread, all washed down with stewed earwax).

‘Stop repeating what I say, Chior,’ growls Karl. ‘Yes, Mrs. Corbiere is doing it, and for a reasonable fee too. And if there’s nothing else, please get out…’

With the lips of a thoughtful trout, Mel backs out of the gleaming room, unable to say another word.

Karl Karole drums his fingers on the leather. From across the luxurious room a portrait of his father, Kleinholtz Karole, stares back at him indifferently, clad, as he always was, in a denim work-shirt, sleeves rolled above the elbow, open neck. Karl rummages in a desk drawer, taking out a small plastic box. Inside are three darts with feathered flights. In an ungainly fashion, he hurls them – one, two, three – at the portrait, missing every time, the missiles either sticking in panelling or falling with a dull thud on broadloom. He drums his fingers again. Snowflakes spin down. The city’s costume jewelry sparkles out there all around him. He swivels in his throne to prod the keyboard of a laptop. His corporate e-mail emerges, with several new messages. ‘Greedy bastards,’ he mutters, opening one after another, to find communications all similar in nature:

We have noted with regret that your company’s usual seasonal donation to our food drive/charitable organization/crusade/free clinic/research etc has not yet been received this year. We feel certain this is an oversight, and therefore beg to remind you that the need is especially pressing now, in the hope that you will correct the omission…

He hits Delete each time, but before he has finished another one pings its way in:

The Convicted Felons Aid Society would like to remind you…

Christ, he thinks, Dad just threw our money away, didn’t he? Convicted Felons Aid! What, it’s not enough I pay for their prisons, I’ve got to fork out for them while they resume thieving and peddling drugs as well? Not likely, buddy-boy! He deletes that one too, closing down the account and opening his private one. There is a single new message:

Dear Daddy,

Like I tell you every year, you’re welcome to come for Xmas dinner at our apartment. It’s nothing fancy, but you can be sure the kids will be pleased to see you, even if no one else is. Love, Gertie.

He deletes this with savage deliberation. That Gertrude, he thinks, what a little bitch! Now another message chimes in, this one from “Sammie”. He knows no Sammie. He opens it:

Hey Lover-Boy,

I thought this would amuse you…

There’s a link. Forgetting the conventional wisdom about not clicking on strange links, he clicks on it:

A video opens up, the stream taking its time to load. Then some old footage plays, and to his amazement he sees himself, aged nineteen or twenty, dancing at a party of some sort. There are different angles, and he soon realizes the footage is from an event held when he was a sophomore at the University of Toronto, an event he’d organized himself in 1980-something – ’86 or ‘87 maybe – to raise money for a charity fighting AIDS in Africa, or somewhere like Africa, he can’t remember now. How slender he was then, the long dark hair in waves, the narrow hips bouncing to a reggae beat. Cut to a shot of him on the podium. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he says, ‘thank you all for turning out on this freezing night. It tells me you realize the urgency and importance of this cause…’ He goes on quite eloquently to describe the scope and disastrous nature of a growing problem. Ah, he remembers the event quite well now. He was dating… what was her name? Gloria – that was it. Gloria Shelby. God, she was gorgeous, a few years older than him, a sociology major. Her parents were professors, nice people too. He ate at their house a few times every week. Always a great atmosphere, interesting conversation and stimulating guests. Yes, and Abe Shelby knew his father, didn’t he? They were both on the board of a charity for the homeless, a charity to which Karole Toys donated large amounts of money. It had been Abe who drew his attention to the AIDS crisis then sweeping some Third World countries and about to sweep many more. It was at one of those dinners that the idea for a fund-raiser was first launched. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were playing in the background. The snow was falling like stars beyond French windows leading out to the glittering white garden. The room glowed, its reflection splintered in the stem of his wine glass. What a great idea, Gloria was saying. They’d kissed that night on the porch – was it for the first time? – a snowflake landing on her nose like a blessing. God, how they’d laughed… Now the shot changes to a sequence of him going from table to table soliciting donations. What a garrulous, cheerful fellow he was! Get those cheque-books out. Come on, Clive, you can afford more than that! Sophia, your Dad just boosted your trust-fund and this is all you give? And there was Gloria, so beautiful, so alluring in that little dress. What had happened to her? He can’t even remember. Who had shot video footage that night? This too eludes him. But now another thought strikes: who the hell is sending me this? He hits Reply and types in Who are you??? Send. But a message soon pings back: the address cannot be reached. Check to make sure it’s right. ‘Damn,’ he says. The video stream has ended; the screen is blank again; he’s left with nothing but questions. Why would an anonymous someone do this? And then: will there be more? And then: is this a blackmail thing? What other footage exists? You can hardly be blackmailed for being young, can you? What else could there be? Besides being drunk on a few occasions, he’d never really done anything blackmailable, had he? Well, there was that time when… Did I ever know a Sammie? He can’t recall one. He stares at the block of old e-mails. Nothing from Trevor, he thinks. Nothing from my son – wherever he is. He wonders about Trevor at times, but he doesn’t really care about him.

It is 4.50 and Marie-Claire has not yet returned with the ink. He complains about this to another VP, the ferrety Barry Thazar, an American with no work permit (easy to pay less), to whom he’s tempted to reveal the company’s very imminent sale to a Chinese conglomerate, which will probably fire everyone and move the HQ to Shanghai – he’s tempted, but temptation is something he’s forced himself always to resist. Nearly always. Pity, he thinks, because Thazar’s good at his job.

‘There is a story about Martin Luther,’ says Barry (or “Bal” as he’s known), through a pair of almost horizontal incisors. ‘He saw the Devil creeping around his study one day, and he threw an inkpot at him – drove the Devil out…’

‘Your point being?’ barks Karl Karole, eyeing with distaste the houndstooth checks of Thazar’s crumpled suit – and, again, the inch of garish nylon sock visible between his shoes and his pants. God!

‘You mentioned ink,’ says the VP, ‘so I thought…’

‘Well don’t,’ Karl tells him. ‘You’re not paid to think. That’s my job…’

‘No sir. I mean, yes sir…’ Bal doesn’t know what he means. He looks rather unhealthy too.

‘That idiot girl has a phone on her,’ Karl says. ‘Phone her and find out what the hell she’s up to…’

‘What’s her number, sir?’ He coughs.

‘Christ, I don’t know,’ Karl snaps. ‘You think I know the telephone number of nine hundred employees? Ask someone, Thazar. Use some gumption. And don’t cough your germs in here…’

Bal wonders if “gumption” involves thinking, but he says, ‘Sorry. Of course, sir…’

‘Was that all you wanted, Thazar?’ Karl says, wanting to see the VP’s face when he finds out he’s fired. God, he thinks, these people act as if their jobs are some kind of human right. Welcome to my world, Bozo!

‘No sir,’ says Bal. ‘I came to tell you that the sound system and dee-Jay for tonight’s party hasn’t shown up yet… and he doesn’t answer his phone. They’re always here by now, sir, because the setting up takes a few hours…’

Karl picks a thread from his lapel, near the pink carnation he always wears in the buttonhole. ‘This year we’re not having any overpriced clown getting paid a fortune doing what anyone with a phone can do,’ he says, almost casually. ‘That boy in Maintenance, the one with acne like a pizza – what’s his name? – well, he’s doing the music…’

‘Slobodan?’ Bal suggests. ‘Slobodan Draculic?’

‘Yes, that’s the one,’ says Karl, shaking his head so violently his jowls blabber. ‘Christ, what a name! Who would name a kid that?’

‘Serbs, sir,’ says Bal knowledgeably. ‘It’s a common Serbian name. I had a friend once who…’

But Karl interrupts this thought. ‘Shut up, Thazar,’ he says. ‘Your maundering ruminations irritate me. Is there anything else?’

‘Well,’ Bal replies, ‘Slobbo should be setting up too. Where is he?’

Setting up?’ Karl roars. ‘All he has to do is shove his phone into Debbie’s Bose speaker thing – how much set-up is that?’

‘Oh,’ Bal says, his face looking as if someone’s crumpled it into a ball and kicked it, ‘the music’s going to be on Slobbo’s phone?’

‘Is there a problem with that?’ Karl demands, glaring. ‘I assume it’s not going to be clog-dancing, polkas or whatever the hell they listen to over there…’

‘No, sir,’ says Bal. ‘Down in the boiler room they listen to hip-hop all day…’

‘Good. ‘Long as its hip. Anything else?’

‘What time do you want to deliver your speech, sir?’

‘My what?’ His eyes narrow.

‘The CEO’s annual speech, sir… the speech about how the company did this year…’

‘Ah,’ says Karl Karole, ‘that’s all finished. No speech. In fact I won’t be at the party – I leave town tomorrow…’

‘Won’t be…’ says Bal, hardly believing his ears. ‘But we all look forward to it, sir. We meed it. People need to be inspired for the coming year by knowing what goals to exceed…’

‘Eh?’

‘You must come, sir, and say a few words – you must. It’s a tradition…’

‘Not my tradition,’ Karl says. But then he feels he’s being a little harsh, particularly considering the nasty shock they’ll all get on January 2nd. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘maybe I’ll drop in on my way home. Now find out what that goddam girl’s done with my ink!’

When the VP has left, Karl looks over at his private e-mail again. No new messages. At 5.10 he buzzes his private secretary, Parvati, telling her he needs an hour’s worth of dictation typed out.

‘But I was just going home to change for the party, sir,’ she says.

‘Then you’d better come in early tomorrow,’ he tells her briskly, ‘because I need it in my hands before 10.30…’

‘But it’s Christmas Day tomorrow, sir,’ says Parvati.

‘So?’ he rasps. ‘What does that have to do with you?’

‘My husband’s Christian,’ she says.

‘Then let him go to church,’ he tells her. ‘I need that typed out. Parvati, no matter what it takes. And I need it before ten-thirty a.m. tomorrow. Do it after the party… or during it – I don’t care, but do it…’

‘But sir,’ she wails, knowing better than to protest further.

He pours himself a finger of Lagavulin from the cut-glass decanter and sips it while looking out over the darkened cityscape. Tomorrow I’ll be looking out over the sparkling turquoise Caribbean, he thinks, gulf or whatever that water is, reminding himself to call the housekeeper in Florida and check that his cook will be there to make dinner tomorrow, and that his “man” will be at the airfield to meet him with the Bentley. His pilot has already been informed of the trip, and, after pointing out he required triple-time to work on Christmas Day, he agreed to have the jet ready on Tremblant’s runway for an eleven a.am. departure. He’ll be spending the night at his lakeside log palace up in the Laurentian mountains, so it’s more convenient to fly from the little airfield there. Karl next phones Florida, grunting out his orders. By now it’s nearly 5.30, and still no damn ink. He leafs through the gigantic contract, pausing to take in the page ending with numbers:

US $ 14,000,864,736.00.

He breathes deeply and whistles through his teeth. Now that, he tells himself, is a lot of money. Then he thinks of the 24% he’ll have to give the other shareholders (Aunt Luella, Uncle Sheridan, and his nephew, Hartley). And then he thinks about the taxman. Those bastards aren’t going to see much of this, are they? No, he thinks, thanks to Glabe, Havelock & Delbe Associates (Panama) the taxman won’t be seeing much of this at all, for it will be secreted in anonymous accounts scattered around the globe on quiet little island states, discreet cantons and understanding principalities. No, ten billion dollars is far too much loot to dangle in the taxman’s face, isn’t it? And where the hell is my ink? The numbers look up at him reproachfully, craving his signature to make them real, to endow them with life, so they can scamper off the page and cavort about across all the world, spidery little cyphers with curved black limbs and money to burn.

At 5.48 Dr. Samuel Gates shows up with his black bag and even blacker stare. Gates is Karl Karole’s personal physician, come to perform the weekly check-up Karl insists upon to combat his chronic hypochondria. With a blistering scream of Velcro and a huff-puffing of the black bladder, Gates does the blood pressure first, squeezing creaking fabric around his elbow in a vice-like grip, a murderer’s hold. He tuts. ‘High,’ he says bleakly. He pulls down Karl’s eyelids with a spatulate forefinger. ‘You’re not getting enough sleep, Karl,’ he says.

‘I can’t,’ Karl tells his doctor. ‘My mind won’t stop…’

‘Don’t take your phone and laptop into the bedroom,’ says Gates. ‘They disturb sleep. Even if they’re off just having them there is disruptive – you anticipate messages, you apprehend the great world out there trying to contact you…’

‘But,’ Karl complains, ‘if I don’t do some work in bed I’d never get to sleep…’

‘Try a book,’ Gates tells him, now peering into his ears with an otoscope. ‘Wax build-up,’ he says. ‘Stop using Q-Tips – they ram the wax down harder – and put in a few drops of warm olive oil at night. Now let’s have a look at that tongue…’

When he’s finished his routine, Karl asks him to look at some symptoms he’s noticed over the course of this week: ‘A lump of some kind on my neck here… A pain in the right knee if I climb stairs… and it can spread to the hip… What’s this thing on my wrist? I get a sort of burning twitch here…’ And so on, right through the whole gamut of imaginary ailments trying unsuccessfully to kill you every day of your potentially brief life.

At the end, Dr. Gates reaches into his bag and extracts a brown plastic container full of green oval pills. He hands it to Karl. ‘I want you to try this,’ he says. ‘It’s new, but the New England Journal of Medicine published an encouraging study on it from Johns Hopkins…’

‘What is it?’ says Karl, eyeing the pills dubiously.

‘Galutzane,’ says Gates. ‘That’s the brand name – obviously there’s no generic yet…’

‘Obviously,’ Karl agrees. ‘What’s it for?’

‘Stress mainly,’ Gates tells him. ‘It’s ostensibly a neuro-inhibitor…’

‘Ostensibly? What else is it?’ Karl is very suspicious of pills he isn’t familiar with.

‘It acts as a stimulant for dopamine and serotonin receptors,’ Gates says, wrinkling his sizeable nose as he nods confirmation. ‘In a nutshell: you feel good and you’re relaxed, getting deep REM sleeps. Try it,’ he urges. ‘If you don’t like it or it don’t work, toss it away, flush it down…’

‘How much is it?’

‘Six hundred and change…’

‘Then I’ll give it back to you if I don’t like it…’

When the physician has left Karl Karole is on the Internet looking up Galutzane. Hmm. Chemical name: disodium metamorphine diethyl-amide sulphate. Possible side effects: dry mouth, hallucinations (visual and audible), tremors, headache, weight gain, blah-blah, the usual ass-saving catalogue of everything human flesh is heir to and around which law suits can revolve, culminating in psychosis and death (which is at least hard to sue over). Then there is neuroleptic malignant syndrome and tardive dyskinesia. He doesn’t like the sound of these. Not to be taken with alcohol or psychoactive substances – because, he thinks, with them it will work far better. That’s always a good sign in a drug, the booze warning. The two serious-sounding side effects turn out to be so rare you’re more likely to win the lottery twice a day for a month than contract them. Take one a day after meals. He dunks three into the hoop of his mouth, and then pours himself another Lagavulin. The peaty aroma and smoky flavour stream through his veins, along with the whiskey’s highland fire, its fife and drum distillate, making his body feel like a strong apparatus, a retort or boiler, refining and pumping out bioelectric life to invigorate and sustain his many distant subdivisions, conglomerating in the heart of his glowing brain. Ah, he sighs inwardly, the emperor of single malts (it’s a gift, a case of it from affiliates in England – he wouldn’t buy anything for ninety bucks a bottle). He hears the numbers in his contract scuttling around, crying out in spikey little voices for their own form of Lagavulin: his life-giving moniker, scrawled in black Montblanc ink. Christ! He hadn’t told Marie-Claire to buy the black ink, had he? She was bound to buy the blue – it’s the default ink, blue. But he doesn’t care for blue, or the brown one that looks as if you’ve swabbed up diarrhea with the page. The green is for fags, he thinks; and the red is for schoolteachers – although none of them these days even know how to write without a keyboard, and kids don’t have homework anymore because it’s too stressful. Christ, what a world! He consults his watch. Damn! It’s past 6.30. Where’s my goddamn ink? Ping! An e-mail. It’s from Sammie again:

Hey Lover-Boy,

Did you like the video? You sure were different back then, weren’t you? WTF happened to you? Check this one out…

Another link. Click. It’s footage of a plane crash, a private jet has gone down in Georgia, and there’s a news anchor narration: ‘Owned by billionaire real estate, construction and toy magnate, Karl Karole, the plane was heading for Palm Beach, Florida, when it encountered rough weather south of Atlanta. The last transmission from the jet’s cockpit told ATC Atlanta that they’d been hit by lightning. It is believed the only people on board were Mr. Karole and the pilot…’ Shit, he thinks, this isn’t very funny. The scene shifts from smouldering wreckage and rescue teams in dayglow orange vests to a head-and-shoulders shot of Sheridan Karole, with a super reading: Sheridan Karole, uncle of Karl and major shareholder in the Karole Corp. ‘What will Karl Karole’s death mean for the future of your corporation?’ Sheridan smiles wanly and says, ‘Mean? I imagine everyone’ll be happy. Karl wasn’t liked. He wasn’t a nice man, he wasn’t likeable. I never saw him – had no desire to see him. But we heard he was about to sell the company to some Chinese group – sell the family business that my brother and our father built up from scratch! It’s outrageous! At least that probably won’t happen now, and all those people won’t lose their jobs to outsourced peasants earning six bucks a week. We have over nine hundred people working here in Montreal, you know? Nine hundred! Karl may even have done the deal with China. No one knows. His only interest was money – and a lot of good all that money’s doing him now!’ Sheridan is asked who will inherit the business, and he says, ‘It’s anybody’s guess what his will says. I own just over ten percent of the shares. My son has four percent, and my sister, Luella, has the other ten percent. Karl owned 76 percent, y’see? We don’t know if we still own actual shares or just a share of the sale price…’ He’s asked who Karl would leave his share to. ‘That skinflint wouldn’t leave it to no one,’ Sheridan says, screwing up his face as if detecting a foul odour. ‘He’d want to take it with him.’ He laughs humourlessly. ‘Short of that, he’d probably build a memorial to himself – a university or small city – and have his body cryogenically frozen, so he could be thawed out when they’ve found a cure for death…’ The interviewer points out that there’s probably not much left to freeze now. ‘Ha,’ says Sheridan. ‘Knowing Karl, they’d be able to cultivate him in a Petri dish from DNA samples. The man was like a virus, a distemper…’ The interviewer hazards a guess that Sheridan didn’t like his nephew. ‘You think?’ he says. ‘I liked him when he was a lad; but something changed him. He used to be great company; but for the last twenty-odd years I’d rather sit in a vat full of vipers than be anywhere near him…’ With this the stream stops and the screen is blank again.

Well, Karl Karole tells himself, we know who to call about this, don’t we? He finds Sheridan’s number on his I-Phone and pokes at it. You have reached the residence of Sheridan and Bunny Karole. We can’t take your call right now… Etc. He leaves a message, a rather unseasonal, a most unfestive message: ‘You’ve got an awful lot of explaining to do, Sher. I’ve seen the video – and my lawyers have seen it too. We’ll all see you in court, pal, where you’ll be lucky to leave with a dime in your pocket. You made a very big mistake – very big. And very big mistakes come with a very big price tag. Do have a very merry Christmas, you and that dumpling of a wife and retard of a son…’ He prods the call dead (such a pity you can’t slam down mobile devices – that used to be so satisfying). It’s nearly seven now. He stamps over to his door. The antechamber to his office, with its desks and phones and twitching monitors, is achingly empty. He shouts for assistance, his voice thundering around the panelling and off down a mile of air or heating ducts, to echo resonantly inside the iron heart of furnaces and between the quivering aluminum gills of colossal A/C units deep down in the concrete core. ‘Bah!’ he says aloud. ‘Where’s my goddam ink? God, I hate this time of year…’ For a moment, he thinks he can hear the strains of some Christmas carol or other; but then it’s gone. God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay… What are they, so drunk they’ve forgotten the day? How idiotic, he thinks, how barmy do you have to be for that fantastically stupid little story about a baby, a manger and some oriental wizards to be dredged up every December as if it’s true? And then there’s the even more ridiculous idea of a fat man in a red suit riding about on a sleigh pulled by floating reindeer to clamber down chimneys, even where there are no chimneys to clamber down, and deliver gifts to every child on earth. Hard to say, he tells himself, retreating into his lambent office and slamming the door, hard to decide which story is more moronic: Jesus or Santa Claus. At least Santa Claus makes this business thrive. It’s also an anagram of Satan, isn’t it? What the hell does Jesus do? He bangs on about helping the poor, then says the poor will always be with us, and gets iced by the Romans for… for what exactly? It isn’t ever clear what the fight’s about, is it? Picturing Jesus in his loincloth nailed to the panelling, feet overlapped to save on nails, he calls up, ‘Get down off your cross, pal, we can use the wood…’ He giggles girlishly, opening the large box of Cohiba Esplendidos that had arrived in November as a gift from the government of Cuba, a gift for Kleinholtz Karole in recognition of… of what? Of yet more money he’d thrown away on some grubby wretches so they wouldn’t have to help themselves that year. God forbid the poor should ever have to learn to shift for themselves! No, don’t lift a finger, Akimbo – we’ll do it for you. Bah! He bites off half a centimetre of moist tobacco and lights the cigar, puffing avidly, then holding it out to scrutinize the fuming ordure. What are these? he thinks. Thirty-five bucks each? You’ve got to be printing your own moolah to be spending eight hundred smackers on a box of dead leaves. He puffs. Nice taste and smell though. Using a remote, he prods the TV on, a flatscreen angled above crackling into life. Channel, channel, channel. All news still, unless you want an imbecile’s circus of inanity, game shows, cooking for idlers or real estate for the impecunious. He decides on a Canadian news channel in English, settling back on a Georgian daybed, feet up, cigar releasing ghostly blue serpents to writhe around the air, another crystal tumbler of Lagavulin in his paw.

‘We doesn’t have no drinkin’ water here,’ some weather-beaten old Indian squaw is saying, kids screaming around her, looking as if they’ve been basted in mud and then cooked. ‘That’s why she left, Doris,’ the woman says. ‘An’ it were the last time I saw her, it were. She were such a lovely girl, always cheerful, always helpin’ others…’ She begins to weep.

Christ almighty, he thinks. Obviously she’s upset that her daughter’s dead, murdered and dumped in a swamp. Do we have to see and hear it every time? He jabs himself another news channel.

On this one a

man identified as the band chief of some tribe or other is waving his arm at a distant lake and river. ‘This is all our traditional land,’ he says, ‘but now they want to run their pipeline through it, harming our water and desecrating a sacred burial site. We are the custodians here. It’s not right. It’s not fair…’

‘Okay, Hiawatha,’ Karl shouts at the TV. ‘Let’s get it straight, eh? You aren’t really in Canada, are you? You don’t want to be. You don’t pay any taxes. Yet you still want your hand-out from Canada every month, though, don’t you? And now you think you have the right to block our progress because of your superstitious baloney? Wake up, buddy! God, these people!’ He finds another channel.

A youngish man, and not a very attractive youngish man either, is dressed as a woman, with a cheap bubbling blonde wig, tawdry earrings and crude make-up plastered over a heavy beard shadow. ‘…and when I showed up for work,’ he is saying, in what he imagines very erroneously to be a feminine voice, ‘they told me I’d have to use the men’s washroom. Can you believe it?’

‘Yes I can,’ yells Karl, puffing and sipping.

‘You don’t think the men would be alarmed to see me dressed like this at a sink?’ the man asks rhetorically.

‘I’ll give you that, sweetie,’ Karl hollers. He suddenly feels quite effervescent with joy. ‘But the women aren’t going to be too happy either, are they? What do you want, Bub?’ he demands. ‘A third washroom for freaks?’

‘Just because I don’t choose to take the final step – snip-snip,’ the man says, snipping at the air with scissor-fingers, ‘it don’t mean I ain’t still a woman…’

‘I beg to differ on that,’ adds Karl, giggling.

‘It’s outrageous that such prejudice exists in the 21st century,’ insists the man. ‘So of course I’m taking it to court…’

‘Yeah, of course you are,’ Karl says. ‘You haven’t had rights for all of history, and just because we’ve misguidedly given them to you now you think we’re going regard what’s always been unnatural as natural? Think again, sister! Those rights are going to vanish in the wind sooner or later. God…’ He turns to some kind of show.

A pretty young woman in denim is describing a date she had recently. ‘Well,’ she says, ‘he told me there was something he needed to get off his chest…’

‘And what was that?’ asks an unseen man.

‘So,’ says the woman in denim, evidently beginning the sentence half way through (a trait that infuriates Karl Karole), ‘he says that he was born a woman…’

‘And what did you say to that?’

‘Jesus!’ groans Karl. ‘What do you think she said? It’s what she says she thought that matters. And she was thinking about what kind of equipment he could possibly have…’

‘So I was wondering,’ says the woman, ‘you know, how complete was he?’

‘Complete?’ the voice asks.

‘You know what she means!’ Karl yells. ‘Don’t embarrass her…’

‘So I said I wanted a large family one day,’ the woman says, ‘and did he… you know…’

‘Did he what, Kate?’

‘God almighty!’ grunts Karl, killing the TV. ‘Who watches this tripe? What have we bred out there? Are they all gargling half-wits?’ He realises no one is going to answer him, and now thinks silently. Everyone out for a free ride, he tells himself. Every circus freak demanding acceptance and understanding – and free money of course. Queers wanting to adopt children. Children wanting to divorce their parents. Parents forbidden to punish their own kids. People being punished in prison complaining about the punishment and suing. Christ! Next the pedophiles are going to demand liberation! The world’s going to hell in a handbasket – whatever a handbasket is…

He catches himself musing and wonders if he’s been at it long. Time suddenly seems elusive – both long and short at the same time. What is the time? His watch doesn’t want to tell him. He stares at its face, at the thin pointing arms and the swirl of numbers, but they won’t divulge their secret – they’re not telling the time. They’ve been told not to tell, he decides. I’d better get moving, he tells himself. He has to drive up the Laurentian Autoroute to Tremblant. It’s an hour if the weather’s behaving. His caretaker, Cyril, will have set the fire, birch logs crackling away under the giant copper hood. The place now seems very inviting indeed. He can smell the wood-smoke and hear the branches snapping away. Still no ink, though – but it no longer seems so pressing, this need for ink. He throws some papers into his Gucci briefcase, not really sure what papers they are or why he wants them. I should fire that girl, he realizes. Then he realizes she’ll be fired anyway in January – why should he go to all that trouble? He digs out the keys to his red Willis Jeep, parked in a prime spot deep below the ground. Ah, he thinks, I have to look in on the party, don’t I? Yes, I do. Not a bad little drug, this Galutzane, he decides. Not bad at all.

 

The 47th floor is rather quiet for a party. Taped to the conference hall’s vast double doors is a notice in black marker: WELCOME TO THE ANNUAL KAROLE CHRISTMAS PARTY. Beneath it some wag has scrawled: PARTY DOESN’T NEED THE Y THIS YEAR, SUCKERS – YOU GET ONLY PART OF IT. A rather browned spruce branch is pinned to the lintel. He opens one door silently and peeks through the two-inch crack. A blaring wave of gnashing sound assaults him with the audio fidelity of Karole Toys’ Chatty Pattie doll:

Gonna make it on the street

Where my dogs an’ bitches meet

It’s discreet

The flavour be sweet

Gotta shed the heat

That’s some feat

Got a two-oh-one greet…

Jesus Christ, he thinks, change the goddam rhyme. But the noise now sounds as if someone is crumpling it up, strangling it. There are groans. The door is yanked open and Melvin Chior stands before him. ‘Ah, there you are, sir,’ he says. ‘Come on in…’

‘Party going well, is it?’ Karl inquires, feeling oddly like dancing himself.

‘I wouldn’t say that, sir,’ says Mel. ‘But you can judge for yourself…’

Karl is ushered into the immense hall. Upon seeing him, people stop whatever they were doing and stare with eyes like stones. The music – if that’s what it was – throttles itself to death, leaving a resonant silence. Dressed in their finest finery, the expression on people’s faces seems at odds with the people themselves, whose gaze follows him like a death ray as he’s led across the immense polished space. Behind a trestle table, slathering margarine from a giant tub on slices of white bread with a knife like a trowel, stands old Mrs. Corbiere, clad in a floral housecoat, on her head a wreath of holly that more closely resembles what would happen to your green beret in a blender. She waves her shiny yellow trowel at him cheerily. Her stainless steel samovar steams away behind her; and to one side is a crate of Bud-Light in cans, a sign taped there reading: BIER (sic) $ 10.00 – cASH only. Mrs. Corbiere cuts into a tomato so large and soft it has collapsed in on itself, flinging the deliquescent slice onto a square of gleaming bread, adding what looks like a small terracotta roof tile, plucked from a plastic sack, slamming down another slice on top, and then tossing the sandwich onto a mound of similar creations piled up on a plate the size of a trashcan lid, its sign claiming: SANDWIDGE OF BREED. TOMTOE AN BAL LONELY – FREE!

Free, he thinks – and no one appreciates their good fortune. ‘Tell everyone to carry on enjoying themselves,’ Karl orders Mel. ‘Let’s have some music… and dancing…’ The very word makes him dance, a little at least, his small black feet shining down there, nimble as they point heel-toe, a noise like castanets on the parquet.

Mel does issue his orders, but people merely grumble, turning to one another for consolation, or perhaps for an idea of what their next move should be. Slobodan Draculic, even his acne looking particularly festive, almost like holly berries aglow on the wheaten field of his cheeks, now slams his android device into the red speaker’s slot. A sound not unlike fairground carousels is heard, the prancing horses visible behind his hazel eyes, going up and down as they go round and around. ‘Right,’ Slobbo calls out, ‘this is Holub, the Serbian Abba…’

‘Serbian wankers more like!’ someone yells. Another voice demands Spew-Krew-Too, presumably a favoured artiste. But Holub persists, their jaunty springing rhythm seemingly at war with lyrics you think you can understand, but you can’t understand them. Sometimes they sound like Quebecois French – and, thinks Karl, no one can understand that. People resentfully return to the dance floor, or else they mill around, a low grumbling murmur heard hovering over them in sound-clouds that jostle one another.

Karl Karole finds himself at a podium in front of a microphone on its silver stand. He taps the mike, hearing a pattering of little thuds. ‘Ah,’ he says, ‘I just wanted to wish you all a… a very merry Christmas… and…’

‘Grinch!’ someone yells. Someone else agrees and adds, ‘Asshole!’ A politer voice tries to silence this dissent.

‘We had a disappointing year,’ Karl goes on.

‘You can say that again!’ another voice throws in.

‘…and,’ continues Karl, ‘and I might have to take some drastic action to correct it next year…’

‘Yeah, fire yourself,’ it’s suggested.

‘I did not say “fire’,’ says Karl, ‘but since someone has said the F word, yes, it is a possibility…’ There are groans. ‘A possibility you should all bear in mind on January 2nd, when there will be a general meeting in this very hall at five p.m. to discuss the future of Karole Corp…’ He pauses, he waits, he says, ‘I shall see you all then. Have a lovely evening…’ With this, he is off the podium, out through the doors, and hissing down in an elevator ninety feet underground to the garage, where his red Jeep burns in its privileged spot, something scribbled in marker on the windshield: PIG. It is laughably easy to wipe off, and soon, feeling on top of the world, he is hurtling across a subdued city towards the autoroute, his satellite radio tuned to a classical station out of Phoenix. He passes a camper packed with rosy-faced kids, visions, he thinks, visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads… or whatever. The poor little fools.

 

The ride was easy up to St. Jerome, but some way past this dormitory city’s clogging sprawl of concrete horrors, trashy malls, sundry industrial-themed bunkers and peddling shacks, as the flat highway edges up into mountains and snakes north, he finds himself plunging into a sickly puce mist that soon becomes a choking sludge of jaundiced fog, a foul miasma in which he can’t see thirty feet ahead, even with his high-beams on. Weather is in an especially vengeful mood too – perhaps it doesn’t like Christmas either, he thinks – as snow begins to fall in a white rain, soon becoming a blizzard that looks like a galaxy dying, stars flashing past to burn up on the windshield or collect in fat wedges, galactic plates on his wing mirrors. The speedometer slows to a dispiriting fifteen klicks. Tremblant is not an hour away at this speed. It’s at least four hours away, four hours from St. Jerome too, not from Montreal.

On the radio is Max Richter’s Luminous, played by the Ensemble Pieta, and he has just enough time to remark to himself on the music’s extraordinary beauty, before the device crackles, spits and dies, no station at all coming in. A spark of life returns a minute later, and he hears the National Emergency Warning System begin to natter on about severe weather conditions for the Laurentians (they always overreact, those sissies), but the warning too splinters into a fuzz of static, and then even that dies. He still feels so buoyant, however, surfing on a sea of quiet joy, bourn aloft by feathery wings of inner contentment (but not too far aloft), that his mood is scarcely affected by this adversity of the heavens. He is looking on his phone to see if he has any messages and to check on the weather, when, far too late, he looks up to find a line of angry flashing red and orange lights coming at him like heat-seeking missiles shooting through the speckled blackness of night.

Karl Karole had once taken a defensive driving course, so he knows that, to stop on a slippery road, you slam on your brakes and turn the wheel as hard and as far as it will go to the right. Or was it to the left? The vehicle will spin in a circle on the spot, avoiding any collision by centrifugalism. Except it doesn’t do this. It zigzags over two lanes, lurches onto its two right wheels, slides sideways and crashes broadside into the rear of a minivan stalled on the shoulder, emergency lights blinking maniacally, a purple flare burning down in a spume of dense smoke on the macadam. Shit, he thinks, as he watches the van rear up at him, almost in slow motion – but a motion not slow enough to do anything useful about its inevitable and crunchy conclusion.

 

After reversing down the shoulder a few yards back from this minivan, he clambers out, as you do, ready to blame the other vehicle for it all. You have to be well-equipped in a car for Quebec winters, and Karl’s houseman, Cyril, has made sure he is, with blankets, chemical heating pads, flashlights, water and even sachets of astronaut food. He zips up the fur parka and pulls his Russian hat down over the ears, walking around to the passenger side to assess his damage. Shining a powerful flashlight over the glowing red paintwork from stem to stern, however, he can’t see even a scratch less still a dent. Bound to be chassis damage, he thinks, and this guy’s going to pay for it. Striding swiftly towards him from the minivan, head down, snow pounding at his face like bleached machinegun bullets, is a squat man in jeans and a windbreaker, baseball cap squeezing out a thin curtain of lank black hair. Great, Karl tells himself, one of our Indigenous brethren, no doubt looking for another hand-out. He’s about to launch into a volley of invective regarding parking on a highway, when, two or three yards off, the man calls out, ‘You gotta phone on you, my brother, eh?’ An umber face, broad as a soup plate and lined, but with a pleasing, open mien.

I’m not your brother, pal, he thinks, saying, ‘Of course I’ve got a phone…’ Who would drive out here with no phone, he wonders, thinking you would, you hopeless welfare scrounger.

‘It’s my wife,’ says the man urgently. ‘She’s gone into labour…’ He points back at the van. ‘The truck died – piston shaft went – and we got no phone, yeah? You the first car we seen in a half-hour. Please Mister…’ He looks up with pained hazel eyes. ‘… Please call 911, get an ambulance here…’

Karl has no idea what a piston shaft is. He thinks: they’re always having babies they can’t afford, aren’t they. ‘Sure,’ he says, pulling the I-Phone from his parka. It casts a ghastly anemic light on his chin, throwing up shadows like grey horns. The indian notices this and involuntarily touches the holy medal hanging around his neck on a greasy length of string. Consternation now floods over Karl’s visage. ‘There’s no damn signal here,’ he growls. ‘No bars at all…’ He shows his phone’s pallid face to the man.

‘Then can you drive us, Mister, eh?’ says the Indian. ‘Just to the next town where there’s a hospital, yeah?’ Appeal leaks from his wide face. ‘It’s kinda urgent, eh?’ he adds, reading the appalled refusal now on Karl’s face and feeling obliged to say further, ‘I’ll give you the gas money, man, eh?’

Thanks to the Galutzane – or thanks to something – Karl Karole is still feeling like the King of Abundance, the soul of magnanimity, and he says, ‘No problem. The hospital’s in St. Agathe – I know it…’ He pauses, he waits. ‘You want help in… in getting your wife?’

The man is smiling now, a full yellowy smile that lights up his saturnine features. He sticks out a somewhat blackened hand. ‘The name’s Joe,’ he says. Karl takes the hand, which feels like an old dried-out chamois cloth, pitted and grainy. ‘I can manage Maia, right?’ says Joe. ‘But we gonna have to lay her in the back, see? Your rear seats fold down, don’t they? Open the hatch and I’ll lay her in the back – if it ain’t filled up, eh?’

Karl has no idea whether his rear seats fold down or not. No one has ever sat in them. Beyond his flashlight beam all is impenetrably black: snow, night, fog. He illuminates Joe’s path back to the minivan, noting that this van doesn’t appear very damaged either. He hopes this isn’t going to be some kind of con – or worse. You hear about such things. He contemplates just driving off, but something lays a restraining hand on his arm, and he can see Joe helping his wife sit up. So he opens the Jeep’s rear door, and finds the seats do fold down. He spreads two blankets in the back – he’ll have to throw those out after, won’t he? Already this is costing him money. He is ironing out ruts in a blanket when Joe appears, cradling Maia in his stocky arms, snowflakes circling like satellites around her tiny head.

‘Thanks so much, sir,’ she says, the voice gentle, soft and low. ‘It was getting colder and colder, and I thought I might have to deliver him here…’

Karl is about to ask how she knows the baby’s sex, or to say something self-deprecating, anyway something dismissive, when he notices the Indian woman’s face. Oval in the headscarf, perfectly formed, it is the eyes that strike you. Large, a pulsing bluish-purple in the light of torches and flashers, they seem to have a radiance of their own, an inner illumination that pulls at something inside of you, that tugs at some strings on your inner instrument, eliciting a plangent chord, a deeper music. Karl blinks rapidly, with a brisk shake of the head. Well, he thinks, they did say hallucinations, didn’t they, the Galutzaners? A small price to pay for this feeling of… of what? How odd, he thinks, not to be able to name a feeling that throbs a radiant kind of warmth behind the breastbone. Odd too is the sense of familiarity attached to this feeling, the familiarity of two dear friends meeting again after years of separation – not that I have such a friend. I should write to the Galutzane people, Karl tells himself, a testimonial: thanks to Galutzane I was able to tolerate scrounging savages who wanted a lift. Why, I even offered one of them a sip of Lagavulin from my silver emergency flask – thank you, Galutzane.

After helping to install Maia in the back on blankets, Karl does just this. ‘Whiskey?’ he says, thrusting the flask at Joe, certain the Indian will go at it like a rat after cheese. But Joe holds up a useful greasy palm and says no thanks.

With the couple’s one battered suitcase fetched from the minivan, and Maia, sighing more than groaning, stretched out behind, Joe clambers into the passenger seat, and Karl, high-beams cutting luminous vortices of swath through the drifting murk and pelting snow, turns his Jeep back onto the autoroute, heading north at ten klicks an hour. Christ, ten!

Turning back every minute or so to ask his wife how she’s doing, Joe tells his driver how he and Maia came to be on the roadside. From a reservation  up in the extreme north of Quebec, near the arctic circle, they are heading to stay for Christmas with relatives near Ottawa. There are no good medical facilities where they come from, so they wanted the baby to be born near a decent hospital, in case there are complications.

‘What do you mean near?’ says Karl Karole, head down, peering into the dense vapours and battering sheets of snow. ‘What do you mean complications?’ These people, he thinks, they want what we’ve got but they don’t want to give us anything, do they? But, he decides, they don’t have anything we want, do they?

‘We like our children to be born in the traditional manner, yeah?’ says Joe, now emanating, Karl notices, an aroma of engine oil, tobacco and wood-smoke – yet not an unpleasing odour, an innately manly fragrance. ‘But,’ he goes on, ‘things can go wrong, right? You gotta be prepared if things go wrong, eh? You need a good doctor close by, yeah?’

God almighty, thinks Karl, how they abuse the language with their cheap rhetorical devices to manufacture our consent to whatever nonsense they spout. He waits, he says, ‘What’s the traditional manner then?’

Joe rubs his hands together with a bristling sandpaper sound. He says, ‘In my tribe it is important if possible for the baby to be born to sounds of music and celebration, to be welcomed into the world…’

Thumping drums and whooping yells, thinks Karl. ‘Why?’ he says.

‘Every child should feel the world is glad to see them,’ says Joe, his voice a muffled down-talk. ‘Life can be hard, eh? It’s good for people to feel they belong here, right? We believe the first impressions are the deepest, right? So we make the birth a celebration, yeah?’

Christ, why bother talking with them, thinks Karl? What’s the point? ‘You know,’ he says instead, ‘you people are always banging on about how the white man ruined your world. But I often wonder how you reconcile the Christianity you all seem to follow with the traditional culture you seem to cherish and which white man’s religion helped greatly to destroy…’ He glances over at Joe, who has turned to look at Maia. ‘I mean,’ adds Karl, ‘that seems to be a contradiction, doesn’t it?’

‘Our culture wasn’t destroyed,’ says Joe. ‘It’s strong, it lives. My people believe you should always take the best you find around you, right?’ he explains, still twisted in his seat. ‘So we found Christianity was good for us and melded with our own ideas, yeah? The message is the same, see?’

‘What is the message?’ Karl demands, steering with one hand and looking to see if his phone has a signal yet. ‘Still nothing,’ he mutters.

‘The message?’ says Joe, peering at Karl’s phone with curiosity. ‘It’s the same in all faiths, no? You honour all of life and share what you have with all, which shows your bond, your love, right?’

Except, Karl tells himself, you people have nothing to share and we do – so you scrounge and scrounge and scrounge. And you call that love. Ha! ‘Love?’ he says. ‘How can you love people who hate you?’ He’s thinking of, in his case, most of the world.

‘Our elders say that hate is only the absence of love,’ says Joe, and is interrupted before he can go on.

‘Yes,’ says Karl, ‘elders – vicars, shamans, witch-doctors – they do tend to say that, don’t they?’ He pauses, he smirks, he goes on, ‘It used to be called Sophism, answering difficult questions with clever-sounding word-play that amounts to nothing…’

‘I wouldn’t know about that, eh?’ says Joe. ‘It’s the same with light and dark, see? We believe darkness isn’t the opposite of light, it’s just the absence of light, okay? An absence can’t be a quality, yeah? So these things, darkness, hate, evil, they’re not real, eh? They’re just the absence of the positive thing, yeah?’

Really, he thinks, why do I bother? Yet he bothers because of this unidentifiable feeling in his chest, this nameless yet familiar sensation, this glow. ‘Abstractions,’ he says. ‘It’s all semantics. You can say evil is or isn’t an actual quality, but it doesn’t change the nature of evil, does it? The word, the label is not the thing itself – do you see what I mean?’

‘But,’ Joe replies, ‘why give negative things a power they don’t need to own and really can’t own, eh? Why say they are opposites when they’re merely absences?’

‘Shit,’ says Karl, braking hard, the Jeep slithering over packed snow. A gigantic flashing arrow has appeared across the road ahead. His headlights illuminate a sign advising an alternative route off to the right.

‘What does it say?’ asks Joe, glancing back anxiously  at his wife .

‘Can’t you read it?’ says Karl impatiently, veering off onto a side road.

‘Not really,’ says Joe. ‘I was never learned, eh?’

Christ, thinks Karl, you were definitely never taught, were you? He says, ‘Oh, I see. We have to take the old highway, the 117 – runs parallel to the autoroute, down here a bit…’ He points his forehead to where a T-junction materializes within the vaporous ice jungle, with its streaming white vines and drifting crystal foliage.

‘That gonna take us far outta our way, is it?’ Joe asks, still looking back.

‘Nah,’ says Karl, turning north again on a four-lane strip that looks like a black tunnel filled with thick smoke, ‘in fact it’ll take us straight into St. Agathe and nearer the hospital, as I recall…’

‘Hear that, sweetie?’ Joe asks his wife, who breathes in silence, a very distant ocean ebbing and flowing somewhere behind them.

‘You haven’t seen much of the world, have you, Joe?’ says Karl.

‘Just the rez really,’ Joe tells him, ‘and the road to Ottawa now, eh? Not that we’re going there tonight, yeah?’

No, not tonight, he thinks. ‘Well I have seen it, Joe,’ he says, ‘the world, much of it. And I can guarantee you that evil is real and pervasive – you see it everywhere, all five continents, every island too, every speck and every dog-hole. You tell those people out there evil isn’t real, they’ll string you up and eat you…’

‘Then they are making the evil real,’ says Joe, ‘by harbouring such hate in their hearts, yeah? Like attracts like, right? You hold love in your heart you…’ But he’s cut off by a piercing scream.

Maia’s small clear voice calmly says, ‘It’s no good, Joe. He’s coming now. His time is here. I’m sorry, but the Great Spirit has his own timing, her own timing…’ A little laugh. ‘We have to stop…’

‘What?’ Karl gasps. ‘What does she mean stop?’

‘We’ll have to help her deliver the babe here, okay?’ Joe tells him.

‘We?’ says Karl. ‘Here? In my car?’ But no one is listening to him.

They’ve pulled over by a clump of black spruce that rise up into the wafting layers of night like steeples of an arboreal church. Joe is kneeling in the rear between Maia’s bent knees. The engine is running, heater full blast. Karl Karole stares accusingly at his phone’s blank blue face. Still no bars, no signal, no anything. How useless the device suddenly becomes without its lifeline, a ridiculous slab of luminous plastic with no point to it at all. He’s offered Joe the heat pads, the food and the whiskey again, but Joe merely shakes his baseball cap, head lowered, intent on the problem at hand. Karl had witnessed the birth of his own two children, or as much of it as he could bear, the strangled screams, the gasps, the epidurals, the pushing, pushing, pushing until strain bursts red and wet across the anguished face. He knows what to expect, and he can’t pace any corridors here: it’s minus 20 outside and falling, visibility next to nil. The Jeep tells him this; it tells him everything – except how to get out of here and lounge before his roaring fire by the lakeside. Maia sighs hard. It’s not a scream, nothing like one. ‘Dilating fast,’ she says, a little laugh in her voice. ‘He’s coming. Feel it, Joe? I shall push…’ She pushes, but the sound is just an ah. Then she says, quite clearly, ‘Mister? Does your radio work? Baby would like some music – if you don’t mind…’

‘No,’ says Karl, ‘I don’t mind.’ And he actually doesn’t mind. ‘Let’s see if anything’s coming in,’ he tells her. As if swelling from the dashboard itself, some Bach effloresces into the ticking car from down in Phoenix, where it’s warm and dry, a cantata bursting from the walls in sheer joy. ‘What kind of music do you want?’ he inquires, thinking I don’t get the thumping-whooping station, if there is one.

‘This is lovely,’ Maia assures him. ‘This will welcome him into the world…’ She sighs deeply. Joe coos reassurance.

For such a burly rough savage, he thinks, the man is remarkably tender. It’s moving — or it could be, to the moveable. How can anyone grow up in North America today, no matter how peripherally, and not learn how to read? No wonder they don’t work – what can you do if you can’t read? They hunt, that’s what they’re always claiming is their job, isn’t it? But that’s not a job. That’s a sport. Christ! He looks at his watch. Nearly ten-thirty. What a day! Then he remembers the plane crash video. He’s not superstitious, but he does now wonder if that was his flight tomorrow to Palm Beach – if that is his flight. And no one will miss me? Bah! Who cares if those worms don’t miss me? Do I need them? No. I don’t need anyone – they need me. A fizzing in his heart; a lightness, a bearable lightness of being. Thank you, Galutzane. He looks at his phone. Nothing. Just the annoyingly cheery blue and blotchy face that serves no purpose at all. A long and satisfied sigh from behind. His babies had come yelling furiously into the world, mewling, spluttering, howling, puking, looking like little old men fetched up from the black lagoon, bedraggled, wrinkled, spattered, slimy. This one, though, comes laughing into the world, a throaty chuckle, something serene, as Bach’s hundred heavenly voices cry their own ode to joy, to bliss, in layers, a garden of the mind whose banked blossoms all open at once to the fructifying light of an eternal day. The high trebles burst in his brain, a thousand eruptions in tiny varicoloured clouds, a rain of rainbows pouring down to the earth in his heart. ‘Everything okay?’ he calls out, hoping there’s no mess on the upholstery.

‘It’s marvellous, yeah?’ says Joe, his voice quavering with wonder. ‘You wanna see him?’

He turns. Still lying on her back, knees raised, Maia holds up the pink baby, whose rubbery legs sway as his tiny feet paddle over her chest and he gazes down at his mother. God almighty, thinks Karl, what’s your life going to be like? Enjoy it while you still can, pal, because it won’t get better than this. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘goodness. Congratulations, I suppose…’

Joe is cutting a blanket with an old penknife. He looks up, saying, ‘Sorry about this, eh? I’ll pay you for it, yeah?’ He tugs at the square he’s cut, ripping it away from a few stray threads. He looks up again. He pauses, a little embarrassed. ‘Think you can do us a favour here?’ he says. Here it comes, Karl tells himself: the scrounge, the “loan” that’s a gift, the pity-me importune. Resignedly he nods. But Joe merely says, ‘I need you to hold the baby while I finish cleaning Maia up, okay?’

The night is black and bitter cold, the snow and fog swirling. When Karl hauls himself into the rear backwards, to slide onto the carpeted ledge formed by folded seats, closing the door and the icy night behind him, the baby is neatly swaddled by a section of tartan blanket. Maia passes him back over her head as if about to dunk him cleverly in a hoop. ‘Sorry for all the trouble,’ she says. ‘We’re very sorry…’ Joe is at work between her splayed legs, using the penknife again, repositioning the big flashlight Karl had given him.

He must have cut the umbilical cord already, probably with that knife, Karl surmises, taking the baby in his manicured, liver-spotted hands. It’s a long time since he’s held a baby; and it’s the first time he’s ever encountered such a tranquil, uncomplaining baby. Or is the thing dead? He cradles the little bundle in the crook of his left arm, switching on the interior light above in order to get a better look. The light pulses to the rhythm of his Jeep’s idling engine, casting a pale lemony radiance. He maneuvers the swaddler so his tiny face is illuminated. Staring up at him with enormous golden eyes, the rosebud lips ever so slightly curled in a knowing Mona-Lisa-smile, he finds a visage of uncanny serenity and exquisite beauty, perfectly formed, flawlessly arranged, more sculpted than grown. But it is the eyes that rivet your attention. The stare is deliberate, wise, powerful, and you know someone is behind them – not just a person but someone. Karl Karole is captivated. The glow inside swells. Something rises up, and he realises that whatever this something is it will soon be leaking out in salt tears. That will never do, he tells himself. Hand you a baby and you blubber all over the Jeep and two strangers? Pull yourself together, man. Failing this, he pulls out his phone – still no goddam signal – and, using one hand, he pretends to be occupied with its numerous little diversions. Before he can react in any way, the baby’s arm shoots out from beneath the blanketing, seizes the phone in a tiny hand, the fingernails like droplets of crystal, and then flings it with a flick of the wrist over Karl’s head into the front, where it lands with a snap on the silver top of his whiskey flask, the screen cracking open, its light dying forever. Bach seems energized by the spectacle, his choir spinning up in a gyre towards some vast, ululating affirmation. Karl frowns at the baby, who’s smiling broadly now. Then his little lips move, and he says, in a low, honeyed voice, ‘Be present, Karl, not always wanting to be somewhere else. Now is all you have, all you own…’

He’s so startled he nearly drops the bundle, so startled he’s about to query the baby’s statement – until he realizes: Galutzane, he tells himself, hallucinations (both visual and aural). The baby looks up at him with interest, with an almost professional concern, assessing something, conveying something with those vast golden eyes. Conveying what? The glow within swells in response, but then the tide begins to ebb, and Karl feels the gradual loss of something, of something precious, something vital.

‘Shall I take him from you?’ says Maia, reaching up with her slender arms, her hands bruised, worn, a worker’s hands.

Karl instinctively pulls the baby nearer, away from those searching hands. He wants to say no, I’m keeping him – no one’s taking him away. But a morsel of wisdom prevails, and he passes his bundle back to the cooing mother, feeling all the same the stab of loss, the sharp wrench of bereavement.

‘You don’t have a shovel in here, do you?’ says Joe, folding something up in another blanket section.

‘A shovel?’ Karl repeats, the words taking a while to reveal their meaning.

‘Yeah,’ confirms Joe. ‘It’s our tradition to bury the afterbirth, right? It goes back to Mother Earth, yeah?’

‘Back to Mother Earth,’ says Karl, pulling himself together. ‘Under that flap you’re sitting on,’ he says, ‘there are some tools…’ He waits, then he adds, ‘I’ll have to come around and open the door for you…’

‘So sorry for all the trouble,’ Joe says. ‘My people say that when a stranger helps you out like this the Great Spirit looks upon him with favour, right?’

‘They say that, do they?’ I suppose, he tells himself, that’s one way of encouraging strangers to be helpful.

They find a folding shovel next to the spare tire, and Joe walks off into the churning black and white void with his sodden bundle, leaving Karl alone, back in the driver’s seat, putting the slivers of his phone into a trash caddy. Maia and her baby have fallen asleep. He wishes he were asleep in his big soft bed, as the engine purrs out its warmth, and Bach has been replaced by Handel’s Messiah: …unto us a son is given… Apt, he thinks, but hardly a surprising coincidence on Christmas Eve. As this thought wends its crooked way out of mission control, the Jeep shudders, coughs, heaves violently, and then dies into a resonant silence, an emptiness beneath the hurtling music. Shit! He turns the ignition, pumping gas. Convulsions but no life. Then he happens to glance at the gasometer: red light on, indicator way below empty. There had been plenty for a trip to Tremblant, where Cyril would gas up the next day. Plenty under normal conditions, though – not under these conditions. Damn! He thumps the steering wheel. The Jeep quivers. ‘What is it?’ asks Maia’s drowsy little voice. ‘Everything okay, Mister?’

‘No,’ he says, and he tells her. Then he adds that the Jeep needs to be switched off soon before the battery dies. There will be no heat or light. ‘And,’ he says, ‘the music’s going now…’ He pokes Handel to death. Silence, deep and long, the wind screaming outside like a soul in torment.

‘What are we going to do?’ Maia asks tremulously.

‘You tell me,’ he says, wondering the same thing himself, and fruitlessly too.

‘Pray?’ suggests Maia.

‘Be my guest,’ he says. ‘Personally, I’ve never found the importuning of supernatural beings to be very helpful in a crisis…’

‘Oh,’ she says, ‘I have…’

‘Good,’ he tells her, ‘because your baby smashed my phone, which would have been our best hope here…’

The wind, the snow, the drifting vapors, the night. When he sees a pulse dimming down the headlights, he turns the key. A fan whispers into stillness, the heat wanes. The darkness is complete, utter, a pall dropped from the endless night above to shroud the mortal world in its mottled black skin. Christ, he thinks, this is serious. That baby’s going to die. It’s now minus 29 out there – with the inevitable wind chill it’ll be minus 40. We could all die. People do – you hear about it every year, some idiots out on a snowmobile that blows up, leaving frozen dinners for the bears or cougars. Or, he tells himself, some idiot out in a severe storm without enough gas to get where he’s going. I’m the only person here with a serviceable brain, he tells himself, so I had better think of a plan. Someone will come by soon, though, won’t they? And if they don’t? One of us will have to walk out into Stygia there, and keep on walking until he finds a dwelling of some kind, one with a working telephone to summon the cavalry. Not the Calvary, he thinks. And who will that one-of-us be? Not I said the fly. No matter how cold it gets in here, it will still be warmer than out there. Joe will have to go. But, he says aloud, ‘where the hell is Joe?’

‘He’s burying the placenta,’ says Maia, as the baby chuckles somewhere in the void.

‘And how long does that take?’ he asks, thinking God, superstition even trumps the survival instinct.

‘There’s a little ceremony for it,’ she tells him, ‘some prayers to be recited…’

‘Great,’ he says ruefully. ‘When he’s finished with the placenta he can come back for the rest of the kid – because we’ll all be dead in twenty minutes…’

‘No,’ she assures him, ‘the Great Spirit wouldn’t bring a child into this world only to die…’

‘Really,’ he scoffs. ‘Wouldn’t he? Christ, you people are so stupid! He does that every day, ma’am – and every minute of every day. Every second too…’ Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so harsh, in her condition? Bah! Call a spade a spade, he tells himself – or a shovel. No point in gilding the lily, is there? Truth has the inestimable advantage of being true – if it’s true, that is.

Through this contained and private night comes the baby’s sweet serene little voice: ‘Karl, Karl, Karl, soften your hard heart. You have this one great chance to undo the damage you’ve done to yourself…’

‘Eh?’ he says.

‘I didn’t say anything,’ says Maia.

‘Well, who did then?’

‘I heard nothing,’ she says. ‘It’s probably just the wind…’

That’s what it probably is, he thinks, the wild wind, groping in his Gucci case for the Galutzane, searching blindly for the whiskey flask, washing down four pills with a swig of Lagavulin, thinking better of this, and then washing down another four. Eat, drink and be merry, he thinks, for very early tomorrow we die. Just as you don’t want to be sitting in Economy to be thrifty when the plane crashes, he assures himself, you don’t want to be very sober when the Grim Reaper comes a-knocking, do you? ‘Like a shot of whiskey?’ he says. ‘It’ll keep out the cold…’

‘No. Thanks very much,’ she replies. ‘I’m warm enough as it is…’

For the best, he thinks. If Injun Joe came back to find me plying his wife with firewater… well, the tomahawk would out, wouldn’t it? ‘I’m going to hurry him up,’ he tells her, the liquor starting a more infernal kind of glow in his heart.

Jesus Christ it’s cold. He pulls the parka’s fur hood around his face, standing in what could well be the depths of empty space, edge of the universe – if there can be an edge to nothingness, he thinks, remembering the question he’d once asked in Grade 4: Please sir, what’s the universe actually in? Mr. Parker had no answer. He cups his gloved hands, he calls, ‘Joe! Joe! Come back! We have problems! Can you hear me, Joe?’ The wind speaks, it snarls around an exploding cosmos, a billion dying stars hurtling to their doom, all of the elements plucked from a primordial gulf of black nothingness to be dashed against its shivering basalt walls, the frontiers of emptiness. Christ almighty, but it’s cold! His big warm bed seems to be a million miles away, maybe in another world. Icy hands climb up his spine, driving in pitons, reaching for the summit, mountaineers of the soul. God, he thinks, let’s not talk about souls, let’s keep away from the supernatural, the preternatural – let’s stay with the subnatural, the human midden. ‘Joe!’ he yells, but it only makes the lack of a response more lacking. Or does it? He hears a sound much like human voices and seemingly drawing nearer. Much like, but not completely like. Oddly familiar though. Ah, he tells himself, I recognize it: the very transhuman sound of throat-singers. He’d heard them in Mongolia; but they were elsewhere too, as a Mongolian tour-guide had informed him. Hallucinations again, he concludes. But the sound keeps getting nearer, a few or even several voices now apparent, rumbling, burping, rolling out a primal rhythm, pre-human, recondite. It’s very close now, very; but he sees nothing – nothing is all he has to see. Then they emerge like phantoms from the oscillating vapours, their robes dotted with snowflakes that fade out slowly. He’s been to Nepal, Karl has, so he knows a Buddhist monk when he sees one – and here suddenly are seven of them, magenta drapes pulled tight around bare shoulders, their burbling chant fading down like the snow on their woollen robes, like the ice on these plains of night. ‘Jesus,’ he says, ‘aren’t you guys cold?’

‘Oh yes,’ says an elderly fellow, shaved head, glasses, smiling eyes. ‘When it is this cold, you expect not to be warm, though, is it not so?’

What, he thinks, did the Buddha know about cold over there in India, where they think 20 degrees is cold? ‘Glad you can take it philosophically,’ he says, ‘and logically positive too; because we were veering more towards the existential…’ He explains his plight and the plight of his passengers, or he starts to explain it.

‘No need to explain,’ a younger monk tells him. ‘We saw you were in trouble here…’

‘Please,’ the elderly one says, ‘let us escort you back up to our home…’

Karl Karole tells them he only needs some gas and he’ll be fine, on his way again. He can pay them for it. Excessively if absolutely necessary. But they tell him they have no gas, because they have no vehicle requiring it. A dozen questions boil up in his mind – how they buy supplies etc – but they’re dismissed credibly. The mother and child must be taken inside immediately, he’s told, or else the baby will be in danger. What about the husband? Did these monks come across him on their way? No, they saw no one. Karl is told to leave a note for Joe on the Jeep. Tell him you’re all up at the retreat – head east along the footpath. The cold is beginning to hurt now – God knows what it’s like for these fellows, arms goose-bumped, scrotums tight as golf balls – so he’s eager to get inside. He can call Cyril on their telephone, tell him to drive out here – wherever here is – and pick him up. The Indians are on their own. He’s done his good deed for the year. Enough’s enough – actually it’s too much already. Grabbing a few essentials – one essential in fact – and his briefcase containing nothing he needs, he follows the thin red line vanishing into fog and snow, as the monks help Maia along a narrow dirt path, one of them carrying her suitcase, all of them making clown faces and giggling, as Tibetans do, at the clucking little tartan bundle in her arms.

At length, a large wooden gateway looms out of the black miasma. A sign, the lettering contrived to have a Sanskrit or Pali feel: RETREAT OF THE LIGHTFORCE OF CREATION. They’ve been walking up a steep incline for ten minutes or more, and the fog is less dense now, the snow more manageable, flakes smaller, on a breeze rather than a gale. ‘This is your monastery, is it?’ he asks the nearest monk, nodding at the sign. ‘Bit of a mouthful – and not very Buddhist-sounding, is it?’

‘All religions are one,’ the monk replies, heading on in silence.

‘Try telling the Muslims that,’ he says, wondering why he expected any more than a gnomic answer from the man. Monks, sadhus, nuns, dervishes, magi, he thinks, the lot of them, they’re all the same, hiding behind platitude and tautology to obscure the truth that they’re full of shit and understand no more than Maia’s baby does about the meaning and purpose of existence – because there’s nothing to know. God, I hate all this phony humility, he thinks. Is there anything more arrogant and overweening than claiming to know the mind of God, maintaining you know what he wants? ‘Bah!’ he says. ‘So what do you do here all day? Sit around pondering and burbling, while the mortals slave away to keep you in idle comfort, eh?’ But no one seems to be listening to him.

They now approach a sizeable log structure, low but extensive, indeed stretching off into the swirling murk, and maybe far beyond it too. A mountain stream runs down one side, fast and fairly deep, or so it looks, parts already frozen over. Then he sees, protruding from a large hole hacked in the ice, a man, up to his naked chest in the water, just sitting there, eyes closed. It must be a mannequin or statue, he thinks. But no, the eyes open, the man presses palms together on the pate of his shaved head, saying something in a deep guttural voice, a greeting or salutation. The monks ahead return this gesture, a mass-burble floating across mist and dizzying squalls. ‘What the hell’s he doing?’ he says, unable to find any feasible reason himself for why anyone should do this.

‘Ah,’ says the old monk, ‘he is strengthening his resolve and will…’

Crushing his bollocks to death more like, he thinks, saying, ‘For what? He’ll be dead any minute…’

‘Look,’ says the monk, ‘can you see the steam coming off his body? He’s not cold – he’s hot in there…’

Yeah, he tells himself, and it’s midday in July out here. ‘How’s that possible?’ he says.

‘Oh,’ replies the elderly monk, ‘it is possible – all things are possible…’

Typical, he thinks, ask a straightforward question and get a twisted, crooked, infuriating answer. ‘Really?’ he calls back. ‘Everything? Try eating the Eiffel Tower as you walk across the Atlantic seabed with no oxygen. I rest my case…’ But again no one is listening.

A set of huge double doors in corrugated logs of pine is thrown open, and the monks usher Maia and he inside. A cloying musky incense fills the air. Along a darkened corridor they go, and then through more double doors into a spacious chamber, a temple or prayer hall of some kind, raised dais or altar at one end, cushions on the rough-hewn floor beams, guttering oil lamps the only source of light, warmth shed by glowing braziers, one in each corner. A futon is rolled out from the wall, and Maia made to understand it is for her and the baby. She squats, lies back on it, more absorbed with her child than this Buddhist jamboree. He is offered a cushion, embroidered, two-foot- square, hard. They’re both told that food and hot drinks are coming. The monks congregate near the altar, seated cross-legged, backs straight, a slight dovening motion. ‘What are you going to call him?’ he asks Maia, pointing his nose at the baby.

She says something he can’t understand, an alien word, all consonants, and then she adds, ‘It means “Stranger-in-the-snowstorm” in our language – in grateful memory of you…’

Good, he thinks, because it means shit in mine. ‘Don’t you want to give him a… well, a less cumbersome name too?’ he says. ‘You know, one he can write on government forms and the like?’ For his welfare cheques, he thinks, for his reparations – if he ever learns how to write, that is.

‘What is your name?’ she says.

‘Karl…’

‘Then he shall be “Karl”, as well as…’ It sounds like Kkkygghddat.

What is this honour going to cost me, he thinks? ‘Very kind,’ he says. ‘I’m flattered. But personally I don’t like my name very much. It sounds rather too German, a snarl or a growl…’

‘Then you should change it,’ she tells him. ‘Our elders say that if someone’s name doesn’t fit them they must seek another name. What name would you like?’

‘I’m not going to change it,’ he says. ‘Too late now…’ It’s a good question though, he thinks. What name would I prefer? ‘George Orwell said that every man at fifty has the face he deserves,’ he says. ‘I imagine we have the names we deserve too…’

‘No, no,’ she protests. ‘You must have a beautiful name…’

‘We shall call him “Noel”,’ says the baby, his voice a delicate music, ‘because he came to us at Christmas…’

‘What?’ he says, remembering that the Galutzane must kick in soon.

‘I haven’t thought of one yet,’ she says, now playing with Baby Karl, who lays naked on his back, pudgy legs and arms slicing languidly at the air. Her face is a mask of delight, delight paid for in the coin of contentment, which has no discontent on its flipside, like the coin we seek of a happiness not defined by the misery underneath – a life, he thinks, not defined by its own extinction.

Galutzanian thoughts abound now, thoughts he is unaccustomed to think, questions in them he is unacquainted with, a whole world here of unfamiliar issues, problems undreamt of, with solutions unequalled in any world. Joe had said some wise things in the Jeep, hadn’t he? But where was Joe now? A glowing worm wriggles in his bowels, it bodies out into the serpent of paradise, twisting mountaineer of the soul, a dogged climber who cannot, it seems, climb anymore, confined to a dark dungeon of the heart, the heart that has lost its wings. He is about to ask why this is, when he sees himself, the young man now, darting into the temple, kneeling by the monks to sit erect like them, pondering the mystery that is no mystery at all, the truth that does not exist. He wants to reach out and touch that boy, ask him where he went, why he vanished, but a tide of glue is beginning to set within him, hardening in his joints, his commissures, turning him to stone. The immobile man has only a twitching life, a spasm of it convulsing out there in the eternal night. Other monks have now entered, ignoring the stone man on his plinth, gathering over Maia and the baby. They place before him an assortment of bright new toys – a multicolored rattle, a ball, a small bear, glittering baubles – with, next to them, a few ratty old dull objects, as uninteresting as they are indescribable. ‘It is,’ one monk now says, ‘so far all as Rimpoche predicted: the date, the time – even the vehicle. I shall be content if this now also comes to be…’ All the monks, there are five of them, buzz and nod in solid agreement with this statement. He wants to ask what they’re talking about, but what used to be his voice has become a sealed-up cellar, dry as sand, littered with brittle yellowed papers, desiccated skin, parched parings from mummified ligaments and shreds of tissue turned to dust. An ill wind blows through this cell, rustling the detritus, sweeping away the fragments into cracks where the mortar has decomposed. He shudders; he strives to keep a climbing darkness down; he watches. Baby Karl rolls over to face the objects placed nearby, his huge luminous eyes not even seeing the toys, it seems, for he reaches out unhesitatingly with tiny curling fingers to seize what proves to be the scrap from a blackened old page in a palm-leaf book inscribed with a spider writing that reminds him of that fat contract sitting empty on his desk. The infant gurgles, waiving his prize as if it were a fistful of gems from the Orient. The monks roar with joy, embracing one another, offering salutations to Maia, who sits up, amazed, unsure of what has transpired here, only certain it’s not a bad thing. One senior monk picks up the chortling baby, raising him to eye level, where he laughs like a nightingale, seizing the monk’s nose in one hand, then stroking his face, making his beard whisper. For God’s sake, he’d like to say, tell her what’s going on, it’s her baby – tell me too. I’m stuck, you see? I’m statuary, stationary. But all he can say is in the creeping draught worrying torn pages stiff as dead moths’ wings caught in a discarded cobweb spun across forgotten tombs. He shivers. These thoughts spiral down endlessly, staircases leading from nowhere to nowhere, tumbling through the useless clutter of words. And then her voice in his head, distinctly Maia’s voice, unless it is his voice, the baby’s mellifluous babble: ‘You don’t know what it is to be looked down upon all your life, do you? You have no idea how it feels to be despised merely for who and what you are, things you can never change, things that leave you despised forever, no matter what you do. You have no idea, and you need to have an idea, a good idea of what this is like. We give you the gift, therefore, the Christmas present of something you could otherwise have never known, and, in not knowing it, lost the opportunity of allowing your life to bear fruit. Take it, in gratitude, take it…’

‘What?’ he says, and it now comes out. ‘What?’ But no one is listening, caught up in their inexplicable joy, their incident of moment.

‘Come, Karl Karole,’ rumbles a voice behind him.

‘What?’ He turns, the bones creaking, cartilage bending.

‘Come. Rimpoche will see you now.’ It is a very dignified old monk, darker, a glossy pate, more important-looking robes. He takes Karl by the arm, elevating him. ‘Come,’ he says. ‘Come.’

Stiffly, uneasily, Karl follows the monk’s billowing robes, leaving the hall to weave down gloomy corridors, past kitchen smells, past shelves of ancient books, past a stench of latrines. They turn into a larger passage, and the monk says, ‘Left at the end, then a right – it’s the third door on your right. Okay? Strive for the Light,’ he says, a salutation of advice maybe, or another direction? Then he spins on his heels and is gone back the way they came. Karl feels resonantly alone now, walking on as he’d been directed, trailing one palm on the wall, experiencing the varied textures of stone, wood and plaster. But the way is not straight, not direct at all. He finds himself zig-zagging, all but bouncing from wall to wall, as the beams beneath his feet buck and writhe, a beast caged beneath them in the superstructure, the interstices, the joints.

One particularly violent jolt throws him against a stout wooden door, which flies open, hurling him onto stone as it slams shut behind, plunging the room into darkness. He scrambles to his feet, groping, but he cannot find that door, not behind him, not to any side. There is no entrance or exit now. A luminescence builds several yards away, blue, brighter and brighter, until – pop!—an I-Phone ten feet tall appears, blinding at first, as he shades his eyes, and then he realizes this is his I-Phone, the one smashed in the Jeep, his arrangement of icons, his apps and crap, all of it. Christ, he thinks, they weren’t kidding about the side-effects, were they? No thank you, Galutzane. There’s a signal too, a strong one: ten bars. What am I supposed to do? Call a garage? But he has to do nothing. On the glaring azure face his e-mail is opened. One from himself? It’s the reply to his question: Who are you? And the answer is: Who do you think I am? A new message. A third one from Sammie is clicked, the letters ten inches high:

Hey Lover-Boy,

Somebody up there must like you, because we don’t. Take a look at this…

The ghostly hand opens up another video. A children’s summer camp, it seems. A musty office, log walls, files, shelves, a couch. He lays on it, maybe ten years old, terror in his eyes, barely him at all really, just the seed of him. That horribly familiar voice talks to him, its owner unseen: ‘Come on, Karly-boy, take ‘em off. Remember what I told you – I’ll tell your daddy what you did. He’ll believe me, not you. I’ve told him what a dreadful little liar you are…’

‘But I’m not,’ he says, a well of tears ready to slide from his wide eyes. ‘I’m not a liar…’

‘You are now, Karly – because Uncle Claud says you are. Now do what your uncle wants you to do and take them off…’

He lies there, pushing at the waistband of his shorts, as the image tears apart, a starburst of fragments spinning off the face, but to reveal: a picnic bench near the woods, camp life going on in the distance. He sits opposite his Dad, Kleinholtz Karole, and he says, ‘But Dad…’ The word is stretched to its limit. ‘But Dad, I swear it’s true, it’s what he does…’

‘Nonsense Karl,’ says his Dad. ‘Your Uncle Claud would never do anything bad. He’s told me what a big fibber you are, always making up stories… But you mustn’t make up bad things…’

‘I’m not making it up, Dad. I’m really not. I just want to come home…’

‘And you can come home — a week tomorrow, son. The time’ll fly by, you’ll see. And Claud’s told me what he’s planned for your last week – you’re going to love it…’

‘I won’t love it. I hate Uncle Claud – he’s a bad man, he does bad things, and he hurts me…’

Angry now. ‘Stop this, Karl! I’ll hear no more of these dreadful lies. You should be ashamed of yourself! You’re staying here, and that’s that, like it or not…’ He rises to leave the table.

You should be ashamed of yourself…’

Turns back with a hard stare. ‘What was that?’

‘You heard…’

‘Any more of that, sonny-boy, and you’ll be getting another thrashing from me…’ He walks away.

‘I don’t care,’ he yells. ‘I wish I was dead…’

But Kleinholtz continues walking back to the lodge. You can see the rage, pain and fury in Karl’s blurred eyes. Then the image disintegrates, revealing another one, a hospital room, girl in the bed hooked up to tubes. But it is no image. The room is really there, behind the phone, which has now melted into air.

He walks over to the bed. Christ! He knows who’s lying there, pallid, grey, her eyes closed, the long lashes now tangled, gummed up with the residues of vision. It’s Gloria Shelby. It all comes back to him now. The new car, the wet road, night, a sharp turn, construction work, and the tanker coming too fast, head on, impact: 120 mph. Now the coma, now the vigil, now the recriminations. As you do when your daughter crashes her car, you blame the boyfriend for letting her drive at night in bad weather. Abe Shelby had called his Dad too, ready to rumble, but Kleinholtz had agreed with him: Karl was at fault, and there ought to be repercussions. Nothing he could say changed anything. She’d insisted on driving that night – with her brand new license – and she was forceful, difficult to resist if her mind was made up. It was one of the many things he loved about her. He couldn’t have stopped her driving if he’d thrown in a sack and dumped it in the trunk. The fathers just assumed that he had to say this – it was about all he could say. No one seemed to see the grief leaking out from him. Abe Shelby’s grief came in the form of anger; and the only available object of that anger was Karl Karole. It boiled over in the corridor outside her room. Abe threw a punch to his jaw and kicked him in the balls as he reeled from the blow. Karl did not retaliate. Holding his swelling chin, he said he understood, said his heart went out to Abe. But Gloria’s dad was having none of it. He would have laced into him again if a hospital security guard hadn’t intervened. Even this guard thought Karl was at fault, frog-marching him from the ward. Abe then had him banned from the visitor’s list, so he wasn’t there when they pulled the plug and let her drift away towards what she had always called the marriage to eternity. It was a line from Rumi, from a poem of profound and hair-raising beauty, a poem describing death, describing it as if from experience. Gloria had been very spiritual. It was what inspired her humanitarian work, whereas his inspiration had been her. Because she inclined towards things of the spirit, he did too. When she was lying there in that astral transit lounge, uncertain what her ultimate destination ought to be, he felt he should intervene on her behalf with the Spirit, in case she was unable to argue her own case. To him, these spiritual things were obviously handled by the celestial bureaucracy operated by a Church, by religion rather than spirituality. There wasn’t a lot of choice in Quebec, so he went to the nearest Roman Catholic field office: St. Basil’s – congregation: three. He went there every day too, for midday mass, Saturday evensong, and Communion on Sunday morning. Father Glick knew him by name. He stayed after the service to pray long and hard in one of the side chapels, starting with the Blessed Virgin, and then, when she proved inefficacious, moving on to the eponymous St. Basil himself. He’d befriended a young doctor at the hospital, and it was from him alone that he received news of Gloria’s condition. After a week with Basil, he was told there had been some evidence of consciousness: her eyelid twitched twice. This encouraged him to egg Basil on, so he felt obliged to learn something about the saint in order to chat with him on a friendly basis. But Basil didn’t seem the kind of man you could have as a friend. All his time had been spent either in prayer, helping the poor or in hard manual labour. Karl felt he would approve of Gloria’s efforts on behalf of the poor, though, so he catalogued them and informed the saint of all she’d done – and all she would go on to do if he only returned her to this world intact. He felt the saint and he were on the same wavelength, and there were miraculous indications he was right about this. Rain held off one day until he’d cycled home; a black cat crossed his path twice in one minute; he won eight dollars on the lottery with numbers given him by Basil. Basil particularly recommended austerities, so Karl denied himself lunch every day. When he learned that the saint had probably died from austerity – suicide by anorexia – he apologised for resuming lunch to preserve his health. Father Glick took a keen interest in Karl’s plight, also praying for Gloria, and directly to Jesus no less. Karl offered barter arrangements to his saint: when Gloria recovered he’d fast every Wednesday and do charitable work one day a week. Then he upped this, vowing to donate twenty percent of his wages, when he had wages, to the causes dearest to Basil’s heart (although not fighting the Arian heresy, which battle had been won). When he heard that Gloria had gone, helped on her way by the wire in Abe Shelby’s hand, his grief also manifested as anger. He swore at Saint Basil, defaced his image with an indelible marker, and then yelled obscenities at the high altar, at the crucified one, and then at Father Glick. Karl had forced himself to realize that these supernatural beings had failed him, not because they chose to withhold their services but because they were fictional. The real butt of his fury ought to be the priest, that conman peddling lies and picking the faithful’s pockets. He cornered him in the confessional, and would have blacked his eye had a convoy of nuns not entered the church at that very moment – which in itself not long before would have comprised another Basilian miracle. He spat in the holy water on his way out, and could never hear someone mention God without tearing them off a strip and gaging them with it. Security guards had been stationed to prevent him attending Gloria’s funeral – and, he learned to his horror, his Dad not Abe Shelby had hired them. Karl took himself off to Corfu for a year just to calm down enough to avoid paying a hitman to break his father’s legs. The lengthy stay conjured up an amnesiac effect, erasing that which was unbearable to remember. Now it all came flooding back, as he stared at the wall and its bank of pinging, beeping monitors.

‘But you did not erase it, did you?’ she says. He turns to find Gloria sitting on the side of her bed, still wan and pale, but very much alive. ‘You harboured it, and it festered,’ she goes on. ‘I’m ashamed of what you’ve become. I couldn’t love you as you are now – and evidently no one else can either. Your own kids, your relatives, everyone who has to deal with you – they can’t stand you. It’s not them, Karl, it’s you. The way you treat them is what makes them loathe you. Anyone who loved you was treated like dirt until they ceased to love you. Your daughter is in bad need of money to help her little boy, but she’d rather clean toilets in an old folks home every night than ask you for a dime… Shall I show you something?’

He’s mute, shocked, he merely nods helplessly. The room falls away, dissolving in the air, as another room grows up out of nothing. It’s his daughter Gertrude’s small apartment in Ottawa. She seated at table with her husband, Bobby, and a couple of guests, as Bobby carves a pork loin. On Gertie’s knee sits little Charlie, her son. She says, ‘Sorry about the pork, me friends, but the bird looked a wee bit too pricey this year…’ There are polite grunts to indicate no one minds — they’re here for the company not the food. She then turns to Charlie and says, ‘Go on, Charlie-boy, show them what you learned this week…’ The child hesitantly recites some sort of seasonal poem, faltering at times, stammering twice, but getting through it. Everyone applauds, especially Mandy, the older sister. ‘The guy’s expensive,’ says Gertie, ‘but he’s so damn good it’s worth it. At this rate, he says, Charlie should be perfectly normal inside a year – in’t that right Charlie-Barley?’

‘Anything from your father?’ someone asks her.

‘Of course not,’ she replies. ‘I invited him as I always do – but nothing from him, not a peep. Pity really. God knows what he does for Christmas. Probably nothing – like he did when we were all young. But it just makes him even more miserable than he usually is. I know he’d enjoy it if he came…’

‘No one else would, though,’ says Bobby, serving slices of steaming pork. ‘He is a bit of a downer, you’ve got to admit…’

‘Yeah,’ says Gertie, ‘but he’s still me Dad, and I love him despite meself…’

‘Thicker than water,’ says one of the guests. ‘Hear anything from Trevor?’

‘Got a desperate phone call last summer,’ she says. ‘He needed cash to bail himself out of some town jail in Alabama. I couldn’t help. I told him I wanted to but that it was impossible. He was furious, didn’t believe me…’

‘Christ, call his father why doesn’t he? That’s crazy…’

‘Trev would rather slit his own throat than ask Dad for anything,’ Gertie explains. ‘You know what he’s like, Dad – it’s actually painful for him to spend money on anyone but himself. He’d have left Trev in jail…’

‘Where he was left anyway, so…’

‘Trevor blames the whole sorry disaster of his wretched life on Dad,’ she goes on. ‘It’s partly true, but he also needs to take some responsibility for it himself…’

‘He didn’t beat himself with a riding crop, did he?’ Bobby says, carving again. ‘He didn’t humiliate himself for not being able to become something Karl couldn’t manage to become himself, did he? Your Dad has to take most of the blame, Gert. Trevor’s a very damaged boy, and he didn’t damage himself – but he just can’t heal those wounds…’

‘What was it that Karl wanted to do but couldn’t manage?’

‘A journalist. You know, the great crusading kind, the talkers of truth to power…’

‘Really? I am surprised…’

‘Yeah. He never wanted to go into the family biz…’

‘What happened?’

‘Ah, it’s not that clear. He wrote some pieces here and there. But he didn’t have the drive to do it; or maybe he just didn’t have the talent. But he also fiddled about in real estate, and found he was quite good at that, so he let the writing slide. That was when we kids came along, and I suppose he decided Trev would do what he couldn’t do – you know, fulfill his dream for him…’

‘Misguided…’

‘You think?’

‘Yeah, but it’s complicated. Dad had a terrible relationship with Grandad. They never spoke, avoided one another like the plague. No one really knows why…’

‘So he recreated that same relationship with his own son, did he?’

‘Well, Dr. Freud, you tell us…’

‘No more,’ says Karl, closing his eyes. ‘Please, no more…’

‘Why should you be spared?’ says Gloria. ‘The things you’ve done — they ought to merit no mercy at all. You planted these seeds, so you must see what grows from them… Look!’

Even though his eyes are closed he sees this, he can’t avoid this, these images that scorch through the mind in rivulets of burning mercury.

A back alley in New Orleans; the night full of rain. Trevor Karole’s lifeless corpse is stretched out face up in the garbage, a needle still in the gravid crook of his arm. ‘Phentenol,’ says a man in grey. ‘We’re seeing it all over…’

‘Ah, Christ, no,’ cries a portly man, balding, chubby hand over his mouth. ‘He was pulling himself together. Man, he was try so hard. Good worker too…’

‘Who the hell are you?’ says the grey man.

‘Massimo. Of Massimo’s Ristorante. He work for me in the kitchen – very thorough, very reliable. I know he have hard life, but he try, man, he make a go of it…’

‘Now he made a went of it,’ says the man. ‘It’s what junkies do – they go… You be next of kin then?’

‘Si, si,’ says Massimo. ‘I know he have no one. I take care of everything. He was good boy – now this! Life is not a fair thing, is it? His papa was billionaire – yes, much money. Very much. But he do nothing for the boy – nothing!’

‘Now there ain’t nothing he can do, is there?’

‘Who was it say that the rich are different from us?’ asks Massimo.

‘Someone addicted to statements of the obvious, I guess,’ says the man, writing notes on his phone. ‘Different? Yeah, they’re different: they’ve got far more money…’

‘No, he doesn’t mean that…’

‘Christ,’ Karl says. ‘My little boy. I never wanted this…’

‘Yet this is what you made, what you created, the seed you planted,’ Gloria tells him, behind his closed eyes, behind the hands clapped over those eyes. ‘You set these causes in motion, and you must face their effects, Karl. There are laws in the universe – immutable laws… Look!’

A groan of despair, as the theatre in his head opens, light falling on the stage: Interior. Night. Barry Thazar’s apartment.

‘I didn’t want to tell you until after Christmas,’ Bal tells his wife, Val. ‘I didn’t think the clinic would leave a message on out machine – it’s so unprofessional…’ He claps a hand over his forehead, pulls the halves of a threadbare dressing gown together, and then he sighs.

‘Don’t worry about their professionalism, ‘Val tells him wearily. ‘Worry about how we’re going to get you treatment. Didn’t you all know that the coverage Karole got you this year was crap? What a scumbag that Karl is – not a chip off the old block…’

‘Who has time to read all that fine print?’ says Bal. ‘Even if you do you can’t understand half of it…’

‘Everything these days seems like a con of some sort,’ she says, pacing the worn rug. ‘Did they give you… I mean did they say… you know – how severe it…’

‘They said it’s virulent, it needs chemo now…’

‘Not later?’

‘No, not later,’ he says.

‘And that’s the oncologist’s fee plus eight hundred a week for the prescriptions?’

‘About that…’

‘Shit, Bal – what are we going to do?’

‘I don’t know, lovey…’

‘I don’t want you to die, Bally,’ she wails. ‘I don’t want to lose you…’

‘I don’t want that either,’ he says. ‘It reminds me of that Tennessee Williams play about the…’

She stops his mouth with her finger. ‘No now, Bally,’ she says. ‘It’s no time for anecdotes…’

‘They’re about all I’ve got left now, lovey…’

She throws her arms around his neck and sobs, saying in great heaving bursts of sorrow, ‘I… hope… God…will…punish that Karl…Karole…’

‘Me, I hope there’s a god… any god,’ says Bal.

Stage curtains lurch closed, and then swiftly open again: Interior. The Funeral Chapel. Day. Two scruffy men in torn hazmat suits, Boz and Ron, open the coffin lid. He sees himself, poorly patched together, filler in the lacerations, lying in there, little more than a pile of scraps shoved inside one of his best suits. ‘Gor, what a mess,’ says Boz. ‘Terrible job – who did it?’

‘Rick,’ says Ron. ‘The new apprentice. They gotta learn some way, eh? Had to scoop up this dude from the wreckage…’

‘I hope they got all of him,’ says Boz. ‘But worra mess all the same…’

‘Who cares?’ says Ron. ‘No one came to the service…’

‘No one? I thought he was rollin’ in it?’

‘Yeah, billionaire,’ says Ron dispassionately. ‘But you know what they say: money don’t buy you love, does it?’

‘It bought me some back in the day,’ Boz says, almost sentimental. ‘Hey, let’s have a look in the pockets, yeah? No one’s gonna mind…’

They filch around in the pricey suit. ‘Here ya go,’ Boz says with delight, pulling Karl’s watch out on its dangling gold chain. ‘Worth a bit, I’d say – fifty-fifty, eh?’

‘Deal,’ says Ron, and they shake hands, the latex gloves squeaking. ‘You know what, Boz?’ muses Ron. ‘Let’s take the whole suit and those shoes too, eh? Dude won’t need ‘em where he’s going, will he? This is quality stuff too…’

‘Why not?’

They strip off the clothing, obliged to move what resemble chunks of beef to one side. ‘Here Ron,’ says Boz, his brow furrowed. ‘If you go to the other side in pieces like this one, do you have to spend eternity spread out in parts all over the place?’

‘Jeez, I dunno,’ says Ron. ‘That’s a puzzler, ain’t it? We’ll have to ask Father O’Brien when he comes around…’

‘Yeah, those Catholics know everything, don’t they?’ Boz surmises. Then he hoists the lid back on. ‘This going to the old cemetery, is it?’ he asks.

‘Nah,’ says Ron. ‘It’s a burner. No one cares what happens to him – or what’s left of him…’

‘It’s like they says,’ says Boz. ‘Be nice to the people ya meet on your way up, ‘cos you’ll meet ‘em again on your way down…’

‘Ain’t that the truth,’ Ron agrees, looking pensive. ‘Well,’ he goes on, ‘I’ve only teally met you, Boz…’

‘So be nice to me on your way down…’

‘Yeah.’

‘Now help me stash this stuff somewhere or you won’t be goin’ up…’

Cut to black, an utter black. He calls out for Gloria, but no one is there. Nothing else seems to be there, either — not three, two or even one dimension. His heart leaps. Panic bubbles up, acidic filaments searing through soft innards. He runs wildly in circles, arms out, frantic hands searching, colliding with a wooden surface, which flies open, throwing him out into the silent passage. Christ, he thinks, they missed out a few side effects, didn’t they? Like Hell. And the Church got that wrong. You’re not sent there by some celestial Judge to be tormented by Satan and his legions. There’s a Satan in you, a nattering shadow, a dark architect who instructs you how to build your own personal Inferno under the impression it’s the Paradiso, a heavenly city populated by one. Oh, he thinks, I have taken too little care of this. But, God, the fear grips him, the final fear of a dreadful and perpetual exile, deeds for which nothing can compensate, deeds which nothing can undo, and what awaits you is terminally uncertain, substantially sickening, wholly vile, and it will last until the end of the end. It will last until the universe is rolled up like a carpet and tossed into the fires of a primal, terrifying flux. The drum of his heart rolls; it beats to arms, ordering all hands on deck. Then, through the embattled thunderheads, a ray of fulvous light shines down, and the luminescence within all things responds to this lover’s touch. The thought effloresces, bold and golden: But surely it’s still only Christmas Eve, he tells himself. Nothing has to be, does it? Is everything predetermined or is there free will? That’s a puzzler, isn’t it, a real brain-screwer?

Moving on through shadows. The wooden grain ribbing his fingers falls away as the great door opens and he falls to his knees in a small, stark room. He looks up, seeing, in dancing candlelight, a very old man, threads of snow-white hair wavering around his head, seated cross-legged on a cushion behind a low desk. Leaning on his hands, with the panting rhythm of slow deep breaths, he, Karl Karole, says, ‘You’re…’ But he loses himself in the radiant compassion flooding through this old man’s golden eyes.

‘Yes, Rimpoche,’ says the man, his voice a spring zephyr caressing tender new leaves. ‘And you are Geula, the Christmas Karole. Welcome, my child…’

‘Geula?’ he says, a peace like freedom now rising inside.

‘Your new name,’ says Rimpoche. ‘The old one was burning your tongue and all who tasted its bitterness…’

‘Do I get another chance?’ he says, this being the only question he has. ‘Is there another chance?’

‘Everybody every day has another chance,’ Rimpoche assures him. ‘In every minute and every second of life on earth another chance exists. Call it grace, call it mercy, call it a benison of the universe, or call it common sense – nonetheless it is there so that a life does not have to be squandered…’

‘As I am squandering mine?’

‘Only you can determine that, Geula – you are the Judge…’

‘Is there free will?’ says Geula, ‘or is everything predetermined?’

‘The puzzler, hmmm?’ says Rimpoche. ‘But not as great a puzzler as the answer…’

‘What?’

‘Free will or predetermination? One is in theory,’ says Rimpoche, ‘and one is in practice – but only you can decide which is which…’

‘Is anything true, Rimpoche? Is there a certainty anywhere?’

‘Yes, my child. One law governs the cosmos…’

‘What is it?’ he says.

‘That which is hateful to you, do not do it to others…’

‘I’ve heard that before…’

‘No, Geula, you listened to it before, but you didn’t hear it…’

‘I hear it now, Rimpoche, don’t I?’ he says, his eyes pleading.

‘All the ills of history and time stem from that one law being broken,’ Rimpoche tells him, a forefinger raised. ‘You have seen what evil flowers sprout from the seeds you’ve sown…’

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘But do I have a chance to root out those seeds?’

‘The future is always what we make it,’ says Rimpoche. I think you know what kind of future you now want to live in, yes?’

‘I do, I do,’ he says. ‘It’s like a blindfold has been removed…’

‘Be careful you don’t tie it on again, child. You say freedom requires eternal vigilance. I say liberation requires it too…’

Resolutely, he says, ‘I know what I must do…’

‘Yes, but you don’t know all of it…’

‘What?’ he says, the word tiring him.

‘For me, you will take that couple and their child to Ottawa,’ Rimpoche tells him.

‘That’s it? That’s all you want?’

‘I don’t even want that,’ says Rimpoche, a smile crinkling his fissured face. ‘But you need it…’

‘But,’ he says, ‘I thought the infant was important to you all here?’

‘Yes,’ says Rimpoche, ‘he would have taken my place one day. But the will of his parents must prevail. No matter, though, because wherever he is he will be a light to the world, leading men and women out of their darkness…’

‘She named him after me, though,’ he says, wincing.

‘Ah,’ says Rimpoche, ‘for him the name will be a balm not a fire…’

‘It’s not a good name for a messiah, though, you must admit…’

‘No, not a good name…’

When he returns to the prayer hall, a spring in his step, Joe is there eating noodles and drinking hot rice wine. The family is pleased to hear his news, and everyone prepares to leave. But Geula Karole has to make a phone call first. The elderly monk informs him that the retreat has no telephone. The air oppresses him, pushing down with a leaden force. How will he uproot those growing plants to prevent them flowering tomorrow if he cannot travel tonight? Frustrated and anxious, he says, ‘Rimpoche told me to do this now – and without gas I can’t…’

‘Gas?’ says the monk. ‘Your vehicle is full of that, I assure you…’

And so it is. As they step outside the mist has cleared and a star-strewn velvety night arches over them. Directly above is an exceptionally brilliant star, one he can’t recall seeing before. He points it out to Joe, who looks up, the radiance sparkling in his eyes, as if he sees two stars. ‘It’s what my people call the Stranger Star, yeah? He says.

‘It’s stranger than other stars?’ Geula says.

Joe laughs. ‘Not that kinda stranger,’ he says. ‘The kind that wanders into your village bringing wisdom and light, right?’

‘Right, Joe,’ he says. ‘You’re right about a lot of things, aren’t you?’

Joe merely smiles, hefting his suitcase and setting off down the mountain. Geula has left Karl’s Gicci briefcase back in the retreat, with the papers inside, as well as the Gelutzane, and he doesn’t miss any of it at all.

First they head to his lakeside house, where the fire blazes under its copper hood. He has to collect a spare phone; but before they head for Ottawa there’s a call he has to make here on the landline.

‘Thazar?’ he says, in his old gruff snarl.

Barry Thazar had been sound asleep, but he’s not about to complain of the hour’s lateness to his boss, is he? ‘Sir?’ he says.

‘I’ve been thinking about your work lately, Thazar, assessing your value to me…

Gulp. ‘You have, sir?’

‘Yes, Thazar, I have. And I’ve come to a difficult decision…’

‘You have?’ A deep breath.

‘Yes, I have. And I’ve decided that you no longer belong in your current position…’

Bal braces for the worst. ‘Where do I belong, s-sir?’

‘I think, Thazar, that you would be ideally suited to the post of president…’

‘President?’ He assumes he’s misheard.

‘Yes, Thazar. Of course the salary will be different – about ten times what you earn now, I believe. Plus stock options, an expense account, and a clothing allowance…’

‘A clothing allowance?’

‘Yes, Thazar. When you represent the Karole Corp, you have to be resplendent – which means, among other things, no checks, no ankle-danglers…’ He goes on to tell him he wants the corporate health coverage to be renegotiated. ‘You dictate the terms yourself, Thazar. I want our insurance to be the best in North America…’ Then he tells him to cancel the January 2nd meeting and organize a New Year’s Party instead. ‘The best caterer, Thazar; an extensive free bar; grand door prizes, the whole shebang, right?’ Next he orders his new president to work only two days a week, join a gym, go to the spa, get your health and body in perfect shape. ‘And Thazar, on my desk is a contract, a big one, a thick one. Can you have Marie-Claire shred it for me – and tell her I don’t need the ink after all…’

‘Who was that, Bally?’ says his wife, Val. ‘Not that beast?’

‘No, lovey. It was Santa Claus.

In Ottawa, he drives to the Chateau Laurier hotel, telling Joe he’s staying here. ‘Going to have them arrange a Christmas banquet, Joe. I want you and your whole family to come…’

‘Right,’ says Joe, a little confused. ‘Our relatives are a bit far away for us to take a cab from here, yeah?’

‘Why a cab, Joe, when you can drive there in your new Jeep Willis!’ he tosses Joe the keys. ‘Happy Christmas, friends – and I hope you’ll always be my friends…’ The baby opens his enormous golden eyes at this, and Geula sees two huge tears slide down from them like pearls you could thread on a string.

I think we all know what Geula Karole did next, don’t we? Perhaps we should imagine the same thing happening in different ways in our own lives, so that the real meaning of this season is never forgotten. A Christmas Karole is still broadcast every year, watched avidly and merrily by nine hundred men and women who have now come to think of themselves as the Karole Family. As Rimpoche said, that which is hateful to you, do not do it to others – then we will all have peace on earth and mercy mild forever, won’t we?

 

The End

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Plot To Remilitarize Japan

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You like conspiracy theories? If so, try this one, born and bred right here. Article Nine of the 1947 Japanese Constitution – largely drafted of course by America in the wake of WWII – prohibits the nation from resolving international disputes by force. In other words it imposes pacifism on a country that, in the light of its shamefully bellicose and brutally imperialist conduct over the first half of the 20th Century, could use some pacifying. This is of course not saying that other countries – Holland, France, the UK, Spain, etc. – were not also shamefully bellicose and brutally imperialistic – or that Germany was not history’s most deplorable of all monsters. But none of those countries was ever denied by the global community an army, and Germany was very soon remilitarized after 1945. So why was Japan thus singled out? It was just chess – simple as that. A perennial threat to the area, particularly to China and Korea, it was thought best to defang Japan and let Reconstruction under US aegis take hold. We must remember that the country was devastated by American attacks, two of them the world’s only examples so far of nuclear warfare. We must also remember that this was an era — and it lasted well into the sixties — when “Made in Japan” meant cheap shit, often the kind of dross you got in Christmas crackers and bubble-gum machines. The nation couldn’t have afforded a military with modern armaments even if it had been allowed to possess one. But, tempus fugit, all that has certainly changed. Yet Article Nine is still there, still an ineluctable feature of the Japanese Constitution, as difficult to budge as the Second Amendment.

 

But all this is changing, or being pushed towards change; and Prime Minister Abe is at the forefront of this effort – or he seems to be. The nation’s single longest-serving PM, and scion of a political dynasty (his grandfather was PM from 1957 to 1960), you could say Abe was completing the ancestral legacy of restoring Japan to its dignity as a fully-fledged player on the world stage – this was his grandfather’s stated and unsuccessful mission. Except that, very quietly indeed, Japan has been throwing its (admittedly unarmed in any serious way) military might around for some time now, and unabashedly on behalf of the US. It was a (rather limp-wristed) member of the so-called coalition to invade Iraq in 2003; and it has participated in more recent actions in the East China Sea and elsewhere in the area. As unpublicized as these ventures were, they nonetheless send a message to other countries in the region – China, North Korea – which have historical reasons to fear a remilitarized Japan, since they were despoiled in the most appalling fashion during the years leading up to WWII. But the country is divided around 50-50 on the issue of rearming. This is why they need a forceful nudge to vote Yes – and they are getting it.

 

It is surely no coincidence that the missiles fired today and recently by North Korea, although putatively announced as capable of hitting the US mainland, in fact threaten mostly Japan, violating airspace and landing off the Japanese coast. We must ask ourselves why Rocket Man would taunt the US in such a wanton manner, when he knows beyond all doubt that a war with America would result in the utter destruction of his country, his regime and probably himself too. I have suggested previously here that Pyongyang must know something we don’t about its security from US attacks to continue with this brazen baiting. I am inclined to think now that this something is an agreement with the US administration to willfully menace Japan in order to sway public opinion there towards remilitarization. It’s working too, the percentages changing in favour of Yes with every missile launch. Incredible, you say. Yet if the Trump government does not take action against Pyongyang for this latest affront then I shall be forced to conclude it’s true. We know that back-channel discussions with Pyongyang have been in progress for some time, but we are never told what is being discussed on them. In the game of chess that is, and always has been international geo-politics, such duplicitous scams are far from unusual.

 

Why would Trump or anyone condone such a policy? There are two simple and highly persuasive answers to this. First is money – of course it is. The trillions Japan would inevitably spend on rearming would go straight into the coffers of America’s biggest business, the military-industrial complex, in which the Trump organization is heavily invested, and which always generously rewards its collaborators (take Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, whose net worth increased ten-thousand-fold after the Iraq War) . The second answer is pure geo-politics. With China roaring its way into becoming an economic powerhouse rivalling the US, if not far exceeding the world’s most chronic debtor-nation, it is useful to have a sworn enemy in the immediate locale and armed to the teeth, missiles just a hop away. Essentially a slave-state since the war, Japan rearmed will indubitably continue on as an American vassal, obeying any and all orders from the State Department and whomsoever else in Washington is impelled to order them. It wouldn’t have to get to the brink of war, though. The Chinese leadership, more subtle and forward-thinking than any other government on earth, won’t need hostilities to tell them what a remilitarized Japan on their doorstep means. When American might moves closer, China may also make a move somewhere uncomfortable for Washington. And so the game proceeds, as it always has done, with the muggles picking up the tab, trembling in their boots, and electing increasingly autocratic governments to defend their paltry stake in life. Call it history. The only anomaly here is that a rearmed Japan would pose a clear and present danger to North Korea as well. But Rocket Man is clearly not the sharpest tool in the workshop, and who’s to say he’s been confided with the whole plan? Those who doubt such nefarious schemes go forward in governments ought to look up how Winston Churchill allowed Coventry to be bombed rather than reveal that the Brits had cracked the famous Nazi Enigma code, thereby obviating any further intelligence via the code. Thousands have been slaughtered to further a strategy or policy. As they say, All’s fair in love and war.

 

Paul William Roberts

robertspaulwilliam@gmail.com

The Purgatorial Papers

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Let’s face it, the classless society is a fantasy, one among many carrots dangled in front of the lumbering masses for encouragement in their slogging travail. The so-called Paradise Papers are just a wrapper around the root vegetable. Does it really come as a shock to find the Queen and Madonna entrusting funds to skillful money-managers for the purpose of saving on taxes? The only salient phrase in all the pullulating news blather on this superfluous topic is that such offshore transactions were “perfectly legal” (i.e. for those still uncertain, they were not illegal). When you’re already paying countless millions in taxes, is it difficult to understand the urge to save as much as possible wherever and however it’s possible to do so? I remember when the Beatles were grumbling about being fleeced for 95% of their income, and George Harrison wrote his marvellous Taxman:

 

Should five percent appear too small

Be careful I don’t take it all

‘Cos I’m the Taxman

Be careful when you die –

Declare the pennies on your eyes

‘Cos I’m etc. etc.

 

There is possibly a case to be made for a cap on personal income tax, a ceiling above which you can keep all your money. The shameful grab known as Death Duties also needs to be revised in a more equitable fashion. I was at school with the scion of one of England’s more historic and venerable dukedoms, which endured the worst of all possible scenarios. Two dukes died in quick succession, and so the estate underwent the payment of two sets of death duty. They were asset rich but cash poor, yet the assets, including property, were mostly family heirlooms. A Holbein portrait is not merely a valuable painting when its subject is your ancestor. This family had prime ministers and eminent generals in its line, and therefore many mementoes that were far more than just collectable stuff. The taxmen didn’t care, of course; and to avoid selling everything to pay off their debt, the family ended up gifting their ancient country seat and its contents to the government, in exchange for continuing to occupy a few apartments in it, as well as to supervise the opening of their erstwhile home to the public. This the new duke quite enjoyed, sitting in his booth collecting half-crowns from visitors and signing autographs. Even so, the overhead was steep enough that, before long, they had a wild game park and antique market in the grounds. It should not be hard to comprehend that those faced with this or similar situations will take advantage of every available means to hang onto a little of the wealth by consulting experts in the field.  We should not punish success, not even the success of antiquity.

 

Brits today were risibly horrified to learn that Her Majesty’s offshore investments included shares in a couple of morally questionable enterprises. Does anyone seriously imagine that old Elizabeth sits around with her shady brokers, saying, “Oh, that does seem like a profitable little racket, doesn’t it? I think we should buy in!” She’s probably never even met the men who deal with the men who advise on investments – and as long as the advice seems good she probably doesn’t want to know about any of its boring machinations. At 90, after a lifetime of dutiful service to an undeserving rabble, she ought to be spared the aggravation. Yes, those investing on behalf of the monarchy should be a little more cautious what they invest in than they would be for, say, Madonna, but at the end of the day they did nothing illegal – so why don’t we shut up about it!

 

Supposedly there are 3,300 Canadians whose financial affairs have been unethically exposed to public scrutiny by this leak of private documents. These people too have done nothing illegal. But, like allegations of sexual harassment, being on this list is treated as if it’s proof of tax-evasion and some other species of financial skullduggery. The allegation alone is enough – and this is not good for the world. The recent revelation of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s surprising wealth was similarly treated by hypocritical bleats from the opposition parties – as if the very fact of having millions were in itself conclusive proof of malfeasance. No doubt those politicians past and present now mentioned in the Paradise Papers – mentioned for doing nothing illegal – will be pilloried in a similar fashion, until the public, curtesy of the media, loses interest in the subject. I should not want my financial affairs made available to all and sundry – if only for their embarrassing paucity. But like poverty, though, wealth ought not to be a cause for shame. It is of course the cause of jealousy – and that is really at the root of these half-baked non-news stories. Those puerile anarchic elements who imagine this latest non-expose will usher in a golden age of egalitarian reforms will be left griping about conspiracies of the wealthy and the unfairness of it all, as the rest of us sail into the sunset of yet another year. Does the ever-tardy Revolution even remember the Panama Papers, that considerably more damning deluge of documents about which nothing was also done? It’s lonely up on the apex of the social pyramid, looking down at all the shaking fists and rattling billhooks – yet one must assume it has its consolations. I am reminded of an old joke that Christopher Hitchens used to tell, bless him:

 

An American student revisits his old professor at Oxford. The professor asks him what he’s up to now. “I’m finishing my Ph.D. thesis on the survival of the ruling class in America,” says the student.

“Oh,” says the professor, “I thought there wasn’t supposed to be a ruling class in America anymore?”

“No one does,” says the boy. “That’s how it survives…”

 

Paul William Roberts

robertspaulwilliam@gmail.com

 

Devisive Devision

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Divide and conquer: that was the principle behind Britain’s old imperial adventures, nowhere more apparent than in the parting fuck-you gesture given to a newly-created Pakistan and an anciently decimated India. Bangladesh used to be East Pakistan (and before that it was East Bengal) – a nation in two pieces separated by hundreds of miles has a great future ahead of it, doesn’t it? While virtually all non-Muslims left Pakistan – and those that remained, mostly Christians, lived to regret it – most Indian Muslims remained in India, feeling fairly certain that whatever Pakistan became it wouldn’t be good for business. It was also obvious that the new Islamic state and the old, nominally Hindu state would not coexist in harmony – which indeed they did not and have not ever since, waging both hot war and cold for the past seventy years. Such was Britain’s obvious intention. Generations of Raj officers, officials and exploiters had seen the mounting hostility between Hindus and Muslims directly caused by the overt British tendency to favour Muslims for positions in the Indian Civil Service. Such communal strife had not been especially evident before, not even during the centuries of Moghul rule in Delhi. Indeed India has a unique history of religious tolerance, and remains the only nation never to have persecuted the Jews, who have been there for over three thousand years. Britain’s first concern was in creating a buffer state between Soviet Russia and the once-Marxist-leaning India, where, when I lived there in the nineteen-seventies, Soviet propaganda was for sale in all the sidewalk bookstalls (fortunately along with all the magisterial Russian novels). Presumably, London’s fading imperial warriors surmised that a faintly theocratic state would repel the godless Ruskies? When Pakistan proved less tractable and more inclined to accept Moscow’s entreaties, along with its weaponry, the Brits evidently decided that another buffer state was required in the subcontinent. Although the ham-fisted cartographers assigned the task of delineating Pakistan gave no mind to inhabitants of the Punjab, through whose state and villages the inexorable line was drawn (some even awoke the next day to find that their parlour or bedroom was now in another country), the new and vastly reduced, predominantly Sikh state was suddenly viewed with great interest. A Sikh-separatist movement was encouraged and sponsored by London, which trained Sikh fighters in British Columbia, and was behind such outrages as both the siege of the Golden Temple and the assassination of Indira Ghandi (since both assaults on Sikhs and on Hindus served the same nefarious purpose). It is why the appalling Air India bombing is still shrouded in so many layers of obscurity and mystery). But Pakistan bent under pressure, turned its gaze westward (and to the munificent Saudis), and suddenly an independent Sikh buffer state was no longer desirable, dropped as if it burnt the hands. Those Sikhs aware of the plan have never forgiven London for this betrayal, joining those other disaffected hordes who are only all too aware that post-imperialism can be as nasty and ruthless as its earlier form – if not more so in its relative invisibility. Divide and rule.

 

If one wanted to be conspiracy-minded, one could view the recent trend towards greater and greater divisions in western societies as a contemporary refinement of the old divide and rule principle – except that there is nothing secretive about it. We are thus forced to accept the fact that human beings have a natural tendency towards tribalism and factionalism, now encouraged by governments, groups and individuals too stupid, uneducated or blind to the fact that all fragmentation in any society is deleterious to the continued health and prosperity of that society. It pits one faction against another, usually the ones most vociferous in their demands of the whole society – which of course is also so factionalized that it effectively doesn’t exist as a whole of any kind. Think of the clearly defined interest-groups currently well-established: the Indigenous; the LGBTQ community; the black, white, brown, yellow communities; the Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Fundamentalists of all stripes demanding a voice; the white-separatists (less popularly but equally stridently demanding a say); the Feminists of many kinds; the Vegans, insisting we only eat what they eat; and all the various other less prominent groupings, most of whom do not agree or partially disagree with what the others want. To the media – which have not given this matter any serious thought – they all have a case, and a right to express their discontent, even though this right in fact obviates the rights of many other factions. Governments themselves have become maquettes of the larger malaise, with the left attacking the right over every issue as a matter of principle, regardless of whether one side truly and fundamentally disagrees with the other’s position or not. The result is a Babel of futile arguments that in the end achieve nothing whatsoever except confusion, doubt and chaos. In Canada, for example, we have the so-called Commission of Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Such is the pressure exerted by a Liberal Government intent on expunging four or more centuries of guilt in four years that this Commission’s hearings have become an agora of grief and tragedy-porn, with family after family pouring out their sorrow in essentially the same terms: they loved their daughter, whose smile was magical, whose life was precious, and whose unsolved disappearance now squats like a black mountain over their days and years. The loss and sorrow are tangible – and so they should be. But the Commission is supposed to be about discovering why the police were so appallingly lax or incompetent in investigating these disappearances. Statements by the families belong in the dossier, of course they do; but the media attention is so irresistible that these relatives demand to be part of the inquiry itself – and no one dares point out that this public grieving is inappropriate, unnecessary and is costing taxpayers millions in fees for the commissioners who have to sit listening to a story they’ve already heard a thousand times. The whole point of this inquiry – which is NOT a truth and reconciliation hearing – is to discover why and how the police were so negligent, and to recommend ways of preventing such negligence from ever occurring again. This purpose threatens to become lost in hearings that the media – ever-hungry for tragedy-porn – report for their grief-value, seemingly forgetting what the actual purpose of them is supposed to be. I despair that, after spending many, many millions, the Commission will fail to achieve the only goal it was set. Long and unjustly deprived of a voice, the Indigenous are now in danger of undermining themselves by insisting that the Commission be what they want it to be – which will assuredly defeat its own purpose. We see the same thing happening on a smaller scale with the imagined rights proclaimed by every other interest-group, no matter how minor, no matter how irrational.

 

As someone who is legally blind, and a card-carrying member of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, I could easily trumpet the many violations of my rights, and those of all the 200,000-odd blind Canadians, encountered in everyday life, from opportunities for employment to accessibility issues. But I recognize the severe limitations I face in terms of any employment, and the immense problems and massive expense involved in making the world blind-friendly, just as I recognize the easily-understandable lack of organizational skills that prevent the blind from forming advocacy-groups as effective as those formed by the disabled in other ways. I also don’t think of myself as a blind Canadian, but rather as a Canadian who happens to be blind. I am, however, well aware of the uncomfortable deference my condition elicits, particularly in areas of government with which I need to deal and to whom I also happen to mention it. My calls are returned with unnerving alacrity, and I know my gripes – why don’t all traffic lights have an audible signal? – will be taken most seriously and respectfully, even if nothing whatsoever can practically be done about them. But I have no desire to be considered as among a disadvantaged minority, and especially not among one whose unrealistic demands cause yet another commission of inquiry based upon the principle that society is somehow to blame for my inability to function in it. In today’s climate of opinion, no one would dare refute such a charge, as erroneous as it is or would be. The politics of division may seem to empower all, but in reality they disempower those who imagine their empowerment, relegating them to a fragment of the whole, a fragment in which their genuine rights can just as easily be dismissed as their claimed rights – after of course a commission has exhaustively and expensively looked into them for so long that the media and thence the public loses all interest in the issue. Just as war memorials dispense with the need to question all wars, so commissions of inquiry remove the urgency of examining real causes for grievance.

 

Perhaps the most dangerous division yet to have emerged is that currently reaching new heights of intensity between men and women. It is a fact that the empowerment of women – ensuring their rights to contraception and abortion, freeing them from compulsory reproduction like farm animals – is possibly the sole way to ameliorate poverty in the less-developed areas of the world. Only men in those areas, some of them, oppose this provable assertion. Our problem in the west is not that. It is the contention that men and women are in some way the same. We accept that all human beings are in a sense to be regarded as equal under the law. They’re not of course, and the classless society is an impossible fantasy dangled like the carrot you can never catch to inspire the masses in their enslavement. But while equal under the law, men and women are different in many ways, if not in every way. It is also true that all preceding eras to our own did not claim or aspire to the enlightenment that some of us imagine we have now attained. Over the past decade I have listened to all of the arguments patiently, especially the one that says all of history should have been as liberally enlightened as we think we are now – and, what’s more, in not being so enlightened they are all culpable and ought to be punished in some way (in what way, though?). Artists and writers, not just legislators, need to be pilloried – which now means ignored or obliterated – for their sexist sins. Naturally enough, it is usually those whose ignorance is radiant who condemn, say, Shakespeare for his rampant male chauvinism – when in fact no playwright before him wrote so many and such powerful roles for female characters (even if young boys had to act them – which is open to dispute). Yet it is not just ages half a millennium ago where social mores and opinions were vastly different to our own. The ever-burgeoning container of sexual grievances, many dating from decades ago, ought to be forcing us to concede that ideas of sexual propriety have been transformed almost overnight (but certainly within a remarkably brief decade). No one has ever disputed the fact that Harvey Weinstein is not a very nice or likeable man, one whose power in the entertainment business allowed him to treat people like shit. David Lynch’s brilliant film, Mulholland Drive, contains a parodic portrait of him as the bastard obsessed with his espresso. But, as inadmissible to the human race as Weinstein may well be, this witch hunt treating him as guilty when, so far, he has not been charged with any crime is shameful and a violation of those unalienable rights he supposedly still possesses. When he said in his feeble defense that he grew up in times when attitudes were substantially different from our own, he was telling the truth. For people to come forward after forty years trembles the credibility of a law that places no statute of limitations on sexual offenses. Kevin Spacey, and many others are now falling prey to a law that accords the victims with undisputed veracity, while denying the alleged perpetrators their right to be innocent until proven guilty. Why? It happened here with Jian Gomeshoi, and it continued happening even after the court found him not guilty as charged. Like most people, I don’t know if he was guilty or not – and I don’t pretend to know, forced therefore to accept the court’s verdict, whether or not I wish it were otherwise. I had my share of sexual predators in the past – when I was young and pretty – but I wouldn’t dream of dredging this up now. When I was sixteen, the Financial Times drama critic (now long dead), B.A. (Freddie) Young invited me to attend the Royal Shakespeare Company’s preview of their new season in Stratford. Naive as I ten was, I still knew it wasn’t my delightful company he wanted in the hotel with him, so I politely declined the offer. Had I accepted it, I can honestly say that I would have deserved any sexual predations on his part, and I certainly wouldn’t have harboured a grievance for over fifty years, choosing to give vent to it now. You go to someone’s hotel room, you know what’s likely to happen, and it’s as much your fault as it is that of the powerful person from whom you were hoping to get some kind of favour. Even back in the distant days of the casting couch, it was conventional wisdom that you couldn’t fuck your way to success. The abuse of power works both ways too. When I was a television producer and advertising in the papers for interns, I received a number of applications that included, besides the requested resume, an 8 x 10 glamour photograph (from females, I should add), an addition that presumed enticing good looks would succeed where experience failed. It is good indeed that we are leaving such debased times behind us, yet it is not at all good that we are indulging in retrospective outrage, shame or whatever it is up to half a century later and from the safety of a different era – one that may not be as morally flawless as it imagines itself to be. It is not good for the world that women are perceived as history’s victims, no matter how recent the history. And it is far from good or healthy for the law to be so bended that it breaks, branding the innocent as guilty for crimes more imagined than defined by any court or body of law enforcement. Those men who claim to agree with this persecution are also denying the truth of urges most or all males experience, even if they are rarely acted upon. The denial of reality is a most pernicious trend, one that augurs the disintegration of society. Unless we are one in our ideals and goals we can never achieve them, and our society will be risibly easy for those who richly deserve to be identified and condemned to rule with the most velvety of iron fists, pitting faction against faction and destroying the real conversation, which needs to continue forever in the vain hope that it might elicit those changes we truly need to come. We do not need to be politically correct; we need to be morally and ethically correct.

 

Paul William Roberts

 

robertspaulwilliam@gmail.com

Shame

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I am against all organized religions on principle. They’re various forms of tyranny that enslave the mind as well as the human spirit, although, admittedly, some do it more perniciously than others. This distaste, however, does not dissuade me from believing in the individual’s right to live whatever life he or she chooses to live, provided it doesn’t interfere in any way with the rights of others. Quebec’s odious legislation, passed this week as Bill C-62, and heralded as a move towards “religious neutrality”, is a monstrous affront that wantonly violates basic human rights as well as the Canadian Charter, which guarantees freedom of belief and worship. We are being told – dubiously, it’s true – that 87% of Quebeckers support the bill. This only proves, yet again, that, alas, the majority of citizens are too stupid to think for themselves and determine that this legislation specifically and solely targets Muslim women who wear the nikab or face-covering. There are only an estimated 150 of these women in Montreal, the city most affected. So are we passing legislation to persecute a mere 150 women, or are we actually sending a repugnant message to all Muslims: you aren’t welcome here? Obviously it is the latter (unless our legislators are bent on wasting their time and our tax dollars – a possibility that can never be entirely ruled out of any issue). Clearly there are situations – medical, legal – when a face must be visible. But such situations can be handled discreetly in private. Yet this shameful, backward, parochial and barbaric law denies the nikab-wearer the right to any public service, including transportation, and it denies these services without a shred of evidence to suggest that such denial is in the public interest. When has a woman in the nikab ever posed a problem on buses or trains? Never is the answer – unless you count the problems bigots and closed-minded imbeciles pose themselves everywhere all day long. Poor fools. A proposition offered with no evidence to back it ought not to merit any evidence for its refutation.

 

Most stultifying of all is the laughable claim for this bill of “religious neutrality”, when the only people it can possibly affect are Muslim women. One oaf on the radio moaned on about, “If I went to their country wearing a crucifix it wouldn’t be allowed, would it? When in Rome, you know…” For a start, I thought, this is their country now; and it would depend on which one their country was, wouldn’t it? In a few of them you’d be wearing a burka too, so the crucifix would be irrelevant. And we’re not in Rome (where the victims of sexual harassment are currently being blamed for their own rape or misfortune). As for the ban on face-covering in general – which the law alleges it concerns – is it to include hockey goalies, nuns, Halloween disguises, and any protection from minus 30 degrees Centigrade? And religious neutrality? It’s not as if Montreal doesn’t flaunt a fantastically enormous cross on the summit of its mount, is it? If 87% of the population really does approve of this legislation and feel it’s necessary if not vital, then it doesn’t augur well for Quebec sovereignty, does it? Who would want to live in a nation hollering and puking its way back into the 14th century? Perhaps the 13% of us still educated enough to be egalitarian and open-minded can found a Quebe Rationale? This is a national disgrace, as it ought to be, and those Quebeckers too moronic to feel the sting of shame should ask themselves why this is, and also why they are behaving exactly like the Nazi Party they once contentedly housed (under the aegis of Adrien Arcand), until a little problem called the Second World War made it suddenly untenable. Plus ca change…

 

Paul William Roberts

 

robertspaulwilliam@gmail.com

Apocalypse Again?  

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robertspaulwilliam@gmail.com

 

Being the only nation to have used nuclear weapons against innocent civilian populations, in Japan, the US is in a fundamentally weak position for dictating which countries can and cannot have such weapons. Admittedly, the recently provocative behavior of North Korea is baffling to those who do not understand the nature of the status quo there, which someone in Washington must do, since President Trump’s threat to destroy the entire country, as well as his taunt to Kim Il Jung calling him “Rocket Man”, played straight into its hands. The retort from Pyong Yang’s foreign minister showed this: Trump is mentally deranged and “full of megalomania”, and his insulting remarks may provoke North Korea to strike the US west coast with an atomic warhead. Although he wasn’t saying anything that half of Washington isn’t saying daily, the minister’s reaction has to be viewed through North Korean eyes. The leaders of that nation are viewed by an oppressed and brainwashed public literally as deities; a sacred volcano is associated with Kim’s grandfather, also Kim, and his glorious revolution, the birth of a nation. To insult this family is viewed in the same light as orthodox Muslim’s tend to see insults aimed at the Prophet Mohammed. There are no obvious insults or swear words in the Korean language, but there are ways to mortify people without resorting to such blatant terms, one of which is to impugn someone’s sanity. That North Korea’s minister did precisely this to Trump shows us the degree of offense contained to them in Trump’s own derogatory comments, which to us are just empty bombast. That Kim Il Jung’s government can persist with its threats shows us something interesting: either they know for certain that the US is impotent vis a vis a direct attack on the country, or else they are disastrously misjudging the situation in a manner that will be suicidal. So they have some nuclear warheads and a few long-range missiles – so what? Can anyone there seriously believe they stand even a slight chance against the most powerful military force in history? The answer must then be the former contention: they know they’re somehow immune to attack.

 

What then is the case with Iran, which today coincidently tested its own long-range missile capable of carrying multiple warheads as far as Israel? It is surely no secret that Teheran has close ties with Pyong Jang? Moreover these ties have almost certainly provided Iran with its intercontinental ballistic technology – why not the hydrogen bomb too? There is hardly any coincidence in these countries’ twin provocation. Do they both know something that has eluded the rest of us? One thing they definitely know is that the US has never sought direct negotiations with either of them. Why? Since the early 19th century and Metternich’s congresses, diplomacy has been generally regarded by western powers as infinitely preferable to war – except when it isn’t of course. It was possible to negotiate with the Kaiser, but no one really did. It was not possible to negotiate with Hitler (although Chamberlain didn’t get this), so war was the only solution there. But such situations are in fact rare. Diplomacy tends to avert conflict when it is applied. But war is the most profitable of all enterprises, and, as Marx explained, capitalism functions at its optimum in an economy based around wars, as the US economy has been since 1945. Decades ago, Noam Chomsky predicted that the US would have to engage in many small and easily winnable wars for the economy to thrive; and it has done and is doing exactly this, sometimes covertly, as with the CIA operations in Central and South America mainly, and sometimes it is overt – Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria. The wars may technically have mostly been lost, but this misses the point. If their impact on the military-industrial complex is taken into account, they were all winners. As Tocqueville sagely observed long ago, the main motivating characteristic of America and Americans is greed. It thus follows that a war against the nuclear North Korea would be deemed unwinnable, or not winnable without a prohibitively steep cost in men, property and materiel. The same would be true of a war with Iran, which would devastate oil exports from the Gulf Emirates by blocking the Straits of Hormuz with sunken tankers (known to be the Iranian war plan – disused tankers are moored nearby ready to be sunk). American corporations are heavily invested in the Emirates, and some even have their head offices there, like Dick Cheney’s nefarious war-profiteering Halliburton, based in tax-free Dubai. These financial titans have no desire to see their trillion-dollar investments compromised by a pointless little war. If financial considerations are placed ahead of spurious political concerns, perhaps the picture comes more fully into focus. Is this what North Korea and Iran know? Or is it the other fact, that the US always needs a demon to justify its heavy security build-up (the police state), and the trillion dollars annually sucked up by the Pentagon, with its thousand US bases worldwide? Without North Korea and Iran there would be a demonic shortfall. Isis is a nasty nuisance, but hardly a dire threat. Al-Qaeda seems to have retired. And Russia simply isn’t viable – too equal – which leaves China. But Beijing may well be more than equal. Hence the abiding need for Teheran and Pyong Jang. The Israelis can be relied on to handle any clear and present local danger; and China will always keep its mad dog on a fairly tight leash (they don’t want millions of North Korean refugees fleeing across their borders). So perhaps Pyong Jang and Teheran can cock a snook in safety and sleep easy at night, knowing their utility to US capitalism trumps their delinquent behaviour? There is of course also the question of why rich nations can have atomic weapons and poor ones cannot. There’s no easy answer to this – except the suggestion that perhaps  no one should have them.

 

I grew up at the height of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation was a daily worry, with regular current affairs stories recounting what new and more terrible weapon had been tested by whom and where (whole atolls in the Pacific vanished; there were unnatural earthquakes in the Urals – a nuclear war had already started for some). Americans had their bomb shelters and drills (evidently resurrected in California since Kim Il Jung’s braggardly threats); but we in England didn’t bother, having been told by Moscow that their first H-bomb would wipe us out in five minutes. It was a similar story in Ontario, for which the Soviet plan was to plop its bombs in the lake, creating a massive tsunami that would obliterate all communities on its banks. The emergency scheme for Toronto admitted that the only tactic was a mass-evacuation, which with the brief warning of an attack there would be didn’t have a hope in hell of being organized in time. So the published leaflet, which I’ve seen, suggested that citizens huddle in basements, with their radios tuned to the a.m. band’s emergency broadcasts for advice and updates. The only problem here was that the a.m. band doesn’t function underground. It amounted to the same thing as crouching under your desk, putting your head between your legs – and kissing your ass goodbye. In 1955, as I have previously noted, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and a plethora of eminent scientists, all but one of them a Nobel Laureate, published and paid for a full-page announcement in the Times of London. It said, in essence, that unless all nations on earth did not abandon and outlaw atomic weapons, then the human race had barely a century to go before the planet was a radioactive cinder. That no one listened to those who were generally reckoned to be the most intelligent people on earth speaks volumes about us and our corrupt, useless systems of governance. Since 1945 we have knowingly had the power to destroy this planet in a nuclear holocaust, and, initially at least, we also acquired the means by which to destroy it with greenhouse gases and the other abominations that now typify the Anthropocene Era of human-originated ecological catastrophe. Our reluctance to act and change these travesties because of greed perhaps speaks volumes about who most of us really are. And the serious question thus arises: do we deserve to survive on this once-pristine, flawless planet? I would like to say we do and we will, but all indicators seem to point the other way. It is dismaying, but let the facts be facts and life the thing it can. For this mournful reason I doubt if I shall be writing anymore on politics in this blog. The dizzying vicious circles and the sheer idiotic irresolution and pointlessness of it all are confounding. I shall turn my attention to more fructifying topics, and possibly even take suggestions. Shanah Tova to all, and may the new year bring everything you could hope for.

 

Paul William Roberts

A Message from the Universe

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robertspaulwilliam@gmail.com

 

 

A good friend of mine sent me the audio version of a quirky novel called Trembling: at the speed of night (that’s “night” not “light”), and I thought I’d share an interesting section with you. It’s a complicated murder-mystery that half-way through develops into an odd sort of sci-fi-horror story. At this point, earth has received a communication from extraterrestrial intelligences who claim to be refugees fleeing a star system whose sun is dying, and seeking asylum here. They specifically request permission to land at coordinates in Quebec. The Americans, who have received the signal and are having a frustrating exchange with the aliens, try persuading them to land in the US; but they’re adamant: it must be where they say. So American officials are obliged to inform the Canadian Prime Minister and ask her to grant permission for the landing, insisting the business must be kept highly confidential. She in turn is obliged to inform the Quebec premier, a man she loathes because he plans to hold yet another referendum on the sovereignty issue. What most interests everyone at this stage is the aliens’ promise to gift earth their planetary library of three thousand trillion books concerning all aspects of a civilization said to be ten million years more advanced than our own. We pick up the story just before the secret landing ceases to be a secret, and all hell breaks loose. If you enjoy this as much as I did, I’ll post others, since the plot has more twists and turns than a Laurentian road.

 

From Trembling: at the speed of night by Duncan McNibb

                            It is set a decade or so in the future                  

 

At 13.00 hours the world changed, or rather it started to change. National CBC television and radio broadcasts were interrupted by a live address from the Prime Minister. Bergit Khan didn’t feel she could keep such momentous news from the Canadian public, who had a right to know. Clearly, though, they didn’t have a right to know everything: for the story Khan told made it sound as if a crew of intergalactic philanthropists were sailing our way in a cosmic library, to gift us with all the benefits of their immense wisdom and venerable civilization. Canada had been selected for this extraterrestrial benevolence, said the PM, due to the nation’s widespread international reputation for politesse, highly-restrained belligerence, fair-play and maple syrup. She was about to say more when another program cut in on her, and it was this one – soon labelled the Geomorph – that rammed the world into a grinder, from which what emerged was unrecognizable. For it wasn’t just the CBC interrupted; it was every station on earth and all over the Internet – in every language too. By mid-afternoon the U-Tube version had ten billion hits, because people weren’t viewing it only once: they were watching repeatedly, obsessively, compulsively. What you saw was a man in black seated behind a gleaming steel desk, a flag or banner filling the space behind him, its logo a red circle with two wavering green lines running diagonally through it on a field of blue dotted with nine silvery-white stars. Beneath the glossy black hair, threaded moderately with grey, this man’s face was morphing through every face that ever was, black, white, blue, yellow, red, ochre, pink, pointy, flat, jutting, withdrawn, square, round – all and everything imaginable. He said nothing for some moments, letting viewers take it in. Then he spoke, and nothing was ever the same again:

‘That’s right,’ he said, and everyone heard him speak their own tongue, ‘take it in, get used to it. For it is your new normal. We are the face of your planet, and, before you groan, we’re not happy about it either. But we’ve known this day would come for thousands of years – just not so soon – and we were prepared. Your pleasant little planet was chosen above seven others back in the Time of the Archons – to you, perhaps a million years ago – and we’ve been watching ever since, assessing, monitoring, ascertaining the stability, and of course visiting. Incognito, naturally. How else do you imagine your distant ancestors suddenly hatched out of apes? You still have plenty of apes, don’t you? Are they “evolving”, as you so laughably call it? No, they’re not, are they? Creatures adapt, but they aren’t heading anywhere; they aren’t aiming for some ultimate goal. Because there is no ultimate goal. Life just goes on, doesn’t it? On and on and on. We gave you a little nudge, though; and we watched, with interest at first. But, I have to tell you, it soon became excruciating, tedious, mind-numbing. The only animal here blessed with a brain that’s the most complex organism in the whole universe – I should know, I designed it – granted dominion over all other creatures, and what did you do? Nothing, that’s what you did. Nothing. We had it on what you’d probably call our television; but soon hardly anyone was watching. We canned it as a broadcast. Who is going to watch nothing happening for hundreds of thousands of years? You’re right: no one. The Tetrarchs watched on, though; we had to, had to consult the Academy about tectonic shift, earth crust displacement, and all the structural problems that make your planet somewhat dodgy at times. Occasionally we’d look in on you. By this stage you are what you’d call Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals, traipsing up out of Africa as the northern climate improved, changing your diet a little, and using that massive brain – for what? For the stunning realization that certain stones or rocks could be chipped into blades; and the blades didn’t necessarily have to be held, chafing fingers, reducing reach – they could actually be attached, using plant fibres, to sticks of many lengths. Amazing, no? No. It was sad. And boring. Very boring. It was especially sad for me, though, since I’d had such high hopes for that great brain. We’re not supposed to meddle with alien lifeforms; but we do; everyone does. Many told me that this apparent failure was my punishment for illicit meddling. We did some tests. It was soon apparent that genetic material from your apes had a more potent resilience than we’d bargained for. It was dominant. It explained why you fought each other all the time. You killed your spouses and children too, so there was no rhyme or reason to it, no safety or security in the family or tribe – as you liked to pretend there was. Look at your chimpanzees today: mayhem, occasional cuteness, carnage, a justified and utter lack of trust. That’s what it’s like. What, you say?: there wasn’t enough wildlife teeming away in the forests and on the plains for you all to eat, to share? It’s not as if you had more pressing business than hunting, is it? No. And some had no pressing business at all – just hope the mysterious sun would rise tomorrow, and then lie there gaping at the stars, not a cogent thought in your low-browed heads. Pathetic. Risible. Were you so bored that stomping over to the nearest cave-dwellers, kicking them over a cliff, dashing out their brains, and taking their stuff seemed like a worthwhile enterprise? And no one really had any stuff, did they? A few skins, bones, some stone blades; and the womenfolk of course. You did know how to breed, if not why you were doing it. Perhaps the sight of other beings you suspect – curtesy of a still pool or slow river – resemble you infuriates something inside? Hmm? What is it? The world isn’t big enough for you? Life isn’t big enough? And the poor Neanderthals! They bothered no one, kept to themselves, didn’t even eat flesh. But that wasn’t good enough, was it? Oh no. You had to exterminate them, didn’t you? But they clearly weren’t so repugnant or loathsome that you couldn’t rape some of their women and haul them off into the smoke, were they? I must admit, I was expecting more, much more. We all were. Five, six, seven hundred thousand years, chip-chip, chop-chop, whack! There’s only so much one can bear, isn’t there? When the art started, our spirits were lifted – figuratively speaking – but not for long. Animals, animals, animals – that’s all you daubed to brighten up those choking caverns that were too dark to see anything in without a fire – and then the smoke blotted everything out again. Miserable. Art is about people, not animals. Why didn’t you paint yourselves? Too shameful, eh? Too arduous? You didn’t dare hold up the mirror, eh? In the time it took for you to discover one tool – a pebble of flint – our histories tell, we had developed into a civilization estimated to be ten million years ahead of yours now. And that was a million years ago. I couldn’t take it anymore. None of us could. Even if it meant breaking the law – and our lawyers will argue that it wasn’t, it didn’t – we determined to help you in any way we could. We started on a large island in the mid-Atlantic – you still call it Atlantis, even though you don’t believe it existed, hah! – in order to contain the experiment in case it failed. Yes, there was some genetic fiddling. Since this was nominally illegal in our world – so until then it was all theory, no practice — there was some trial and error. Quite a bit of error in fact. The first four beings we created turned out to be far too intelligent, far too advanced. We were looking for a farming people, an agricultural society, not a tribe of sages, lordly hierarchs. Philosophy doesn’t do much for sowers of seed, does it? No. But the next batch we produced proved not to be intelligent enough. The brain I designed was mighty indeed, but with this bunch it was housed inside what was more ape than man. It was analogous to giving one of your computers to a gorilla: the lights might be fascinating, but utility ends there. So we were moving on to making a third group when disaster struck – as it will do on your planet. A crustal displacement sent the whole island continent hurtling south – it’s now what you call Antarctica. If you ever get around to exploring a mile or so beneath the ice there, you’ll still be able to find ruins of our city, and even the racecourse described by Plato, whose grandfather, Solon, heard this account from the Egyptian priesthood, who knew all about it. Obviously, there weren’t many survivors; but there were some. We headed up into orbit, as you might expect; the cataclysm was a shock; we weren’t about to venture down again until we were certain the planet was stable — which was quite some time by your standards. And what we found both surprised and, initially, dismayed us. Our first four replicants – the very intelligent ones – had evidently escaped the catastrophe in a sailing ship they’d wisely built in anticipation of such an event; they sailed along with a large number of beings from the second creation. Their ship had crossed the ocean and found its way into what you call the Mediterranean, eventually landing in Egypt, which was then largely fertile savannah. This would be, for you, about 12,000 years ago. By the time we arrived, the four sages had established themselves as god-like leaders over the ape men and women, who’d been reproducing at a frenzied rate. It was their one great talent. There were thousands of them, lumbering about with this vast brain tormenting them. It kept giving them ideas they couldn’t use, which made them deeply depressed, a state with which we were quite unfamiliar. Yet the four godlings had been able to keep this gloomy mass under a semblance of control. There was a remarkable sense of order and even devotion; as well as signs of a constructive development far exceeding that of the violent Cro-Magnons shivering away up in Europe. Yet it was clear that our ape people were in for a rough time of it, handicapped on both ends of the genetic code. We realized we’d blundered, and perhaps realized more fully why our meddling was allegedly forbidden. One learns from experience, as even you may have noticed by now – not that there’s much evidence of it. We felt obliged to correct the mistake. There were far too many of these beings just to phase them out naturally – a law we do all recognize is that one should not kill fellow beings, no matter how stupid they might be – so it was proposed that we introduce into them a gene which would impede reproduction in the next generation, soon erasing the race. But when the four godlings heard of this they objected strenuously. We had assumed they would return with us to our world, where aging is different; yet they had become rather attached to their hierarchic roles there, and to their devoted ape people, insisting they stay and guide these poor creatures towards a more hopeful future. They should not be cleaned off the slate, it was maintained. The proper way to correct such an abominable error, we were told, was for our godlings to remain as shepherds, working to undo the harm rather than pretend it had never occurred. We were chastised by our own creations. Of course we were forced to agree – logic is highly prized among us – and we said we’d keep an eye on their progress with the ape people, who by then knew their ruling shepherds as Isis, Osiris, Nephthys, and Horus – names still remembered today by a few of you. Compared with what I’d been seeing in the wretched dripping forests of Europe – 700 millennia and nothing – progress in Egypt was electrifying, a blur of activity. With all of our wisdom in their triple helix – I know yours is only double, like our ape people – the quaternary of deities were soon able to teach our sciences to their flock, whose self-esteem burgeoned incomparably as they witnessed the work of their hands effloresce in a hundred directions: astonishing architecture, art, a system of writing, medicine, and a philosophy that explained the nature and meaning of life, as well as the structure of the universe. Admittedly, we wondered – I certainly did – how your historians would explain this explosion of learning out of nothing, hunter-gatherers to high civilization in a few centuries. But they seem to ignore the issue. Which is, shall we say, rather unusual, somewhat incurious. We could see this would spread rapidly, this idea of civilization, which it did; and we found that our godlings had split up, two of them travelling to the place known as Bharata, now India, where they settled up in the Himalayas to avoid a tremendous flood. There they were known by many names, Indra, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, Saraswati, and so forth. Their works have long since vanished in that appalling climate, but their wisdom still remains, handed down in an oral tradition, now enshrined in what are known as the Vedas, and which in fact contain everything necessary to restart a civilization if most of humankind is wiped from the face of the earth. An eventuality that may well happen. Because, as we watched Egypt unfurl, reaching for its destiny, we noticed an alarming trend. The love of wisdom was mutating into a love of stuff, gold, jewels, palaces, excess; and the pure philosophy was deteriorating into those religions which have become a curse on your planet, a major rationale for your endless conflicts – not that you require much of a rationale to fight one another pointlessly. An egalitarian society is one where each does according to his or her ability, and receives according to his or her need – and Egypt had this. But it degenerated into an ossified hierarchy, where human beings were bought and sold by other human beings, in order to serve those few at the apex of the social pyramid who had gradually acquired all the wealth, and thus all the power. Even the pharaoh, who posed as a god, was under their control; it deflected attention away from them, as they proceeded in their work of debasing the civilization in every area to satisfy a boundless greed. Instead of conferring on the world wisdom and the inestimable virtue of sharing, they offered the template for ostentation, acquisition and division. How can any society hope to advance on such a riven, fissured basis? If you look at it – which precious few of you now seem inclined to do – you will notice that Egypt begins at its zenith, with the rest of its 3,000-year history a slow decline into decadence, and then worse. At the outset, 5,000 years ago, everything is at its peak of perfection, the writing, the art, the engineering, the philosophy, the medical knowledge, the mathematics, and so forth. Fast forward three millennia, to what you call the Ptolemaic period, and what do you find. Ugh! It’s embarrassing. This trend puzzled us; we had only seen the reverse in our culture, one generation always building on the previous achievements, no regression. Those who perch upon the shoulders of giants can always see further than the giants. But we recognized the downward trend as a consequence of the ill-adapted brain; so we felt obligated to help correct it as best we could. And we have sent you our best, those you regard as your own: Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Krishna, Buddha, Hammurabi, Moses, Pythagoras, Plato, Jesus,  Copernicus, Newton – need I go on? Some of you have responded well to these corrective efforts; but most of you have not. Not at all, you haven’t. Must I point out that your planet today is merely a far more dangerous version of the lawless jungle from whence you sprang? I trust not. But I am wearying you with my tale, am I? We all felt you were owed an explanation for what is to come, and so I have provided you with one. As I said in my opening remarks, we are in the unfortunate position of losing our own planet, obliged now to occupy what you consider to be yours. Technically, we are refugees – the term seems to elicit empathy in some of you – but refugees don’t immediately assume control, do they? No. So it is my duty now to inform you that we are in control of Planet Earth; resistance will be futile – in fact it will be impossible, for we have neutralized all your extremely nasty, primitive weapons systems. Go, check, not even one of your horribly iniquitous and inequitable little guns will work. It is already complete; it is over. You will do what we tell you, at least until we judge that you are able to act in a sane and rational manner on your own. You are in no position to make demands of us or to dictate terms, conditions. No. You have made this place a midden, a dung-heap, and we do not live in such places. You will set about repairing the damage and cleaning it up forthwith. Until it is in a satisfactory state, we shall remain in our vessel, unseen. You think you are seeing me now, but this image is only visible for your benefit, your edification. In fact you are unable to see any of us, since our nature is beyond your conception – you would be incapable of describing it – and what cannot be conceived cannot be seen. Instructions will be issued periodically, but our first one for you is that, as of now, all religions are forbidden, their texts to be destroyed, their places of worship – or those we consider fit for the task – converted to the propagation of a philosophy we shall be providing you with in due course. The signs for these places will read only “House of Wisdom”, nothing else. I realize that all of this will be something of a shock for you; but you badly need to be shocked out of your indolence, complacency and barbarism. We shall be landing when conditions are optimal; but until then do not imagine we cannot see what each and every one of you is up to, and even what you are thinking. So purify your minds and hearts. You are up against a force whose scope and strength would, if it could be known, be horripilating to you all, here in the disquietingly decayed remnants of what cannot in all honesty even be called a civilization anymore. Evolution? Hah! We didn’t send you Darwin – he’s definitely one of yours. In fact you’re in your darkest age, the Era of the Lie. There is Truth, and there is its negation, the Lie, an absence not a quality. You now call it “post-truth”, to avoid facing the truth. But you went from pre-truth straight to post-truth, barely ever pausing in the middle, where truth lies. A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, illusions – but you’ve forgotten what they are. Yes. You can’t distinguish between facts and opinions anymore. All you want these days is entertainment, isn’t it? You splutter on about democracy, but you don’t even know what it is. To you now it’s just voting for the best singer. When we look down on your world we think there might be four major divisions. But no. All these languages confusing everything; and this pullulation of wretched little countries, each with its own petty little truth. You blabber on about all people being created equal, but you don’t believe it in practice; you don’t care if your freedom means another’s slavery, do you? Your schools teach mainly obedience (you’ve become so very unruly); they kill imagination, which is the greatest gift of all. You worship wealth, not any god; but what you most adore is power. Look at those you elect to lead you: men and women from wealth and power, all of whom prostrate themselves at the altars of efficiency, not autonomy or freedom. Efficiency belongs in a business, not in governance, where more profound considerations ought to prevail. You announce equal opportunities for all – anyone can work hard and become rich – but they don’t really exist, do they? A tiny minority of you are rich, and they are determined to keep it that way, ensuring that only their offspring get a decent education, because no one else can afford it. The idea of a place where one person has nothing and nowhere to live, while another has a dozen homes and more than ten thousand hard workers earn in a lifetime, such a place defies belief for us. It seems so impossible that we used it in jokes and comedies as a Wonderland – I mean Alice’s not Canada’s – a realm of total inversion, a planet without logic, a kind of hell. Only studying you people did we realise such a hell could exist. You have logic, and a few of you understand it; yet there is no evidence for it being employed anywhere, or at least not for long, and never in situations where it is most needed. In your puny little nations you prefer to go to war rather than contemplate the logic of sharing as a means to advance the world. We have a comedian who specialises in describing ridiculous situations found in your world. One of her most beloved routines involves a politician here ranting about your universities being the major hotbeds of social reform.’ A pause. ‘You don’t get it, do you? To us, that politician is complaining that the most intelligent and best-educated among you tend to propound the dire necessity for social reform.’ Another pause. ‘Still don’t get it? Well, our sense of humour will not tickle your ribs. Since you commodified education, you seem to have ceased to value it as well. Correct? Well, I shall move on. Many of you have little choice but to toil all day long every day just to survive; but many of you also have some options and the potential ability to transform the ills of society – yet scarcely any do it. Why? Because you believe any politician who promises you what you want, and you’re too stupid to see that they never deliver these promises, serving only the interests of those elites who finance their careers. Anyone can become rich, they tell you. Indeed, everyone could become rich. This hope is kept alive by get-rich-quick scams and lotteries, whose jackpots often exceed the gross national income of many nations. One day you’re counting out food stamps and wondering if you can afford dialysis, the next you’re banking a check for $500 million and buying your own clinic. I hear a few chuckles. Yet this is still a fantasy you harbour, isn’t it? The rich apex of your pyramid only serves as a role-model, rather than the emblem of an iniquitous society, a botched civilization, which is what it ought to represent. You want to be rich, not to share – and sharing is the only possible way to improve the lives of you all. In our society, sharing defines virtue and a good life – indeed people vie with one another to see who can most completely share what they have – and greed, the desire to receive, is viewed as the very nadir of baseness, since it is at the root of all social and planetary problems. Of course no one is remotely greedy in your exalted terms; and when we call someone ‘greedy’ it is said in jest over some trifle, just as you call each other “idiots” or “morons” after some slight faux pas or insignificant blunder. But when I call you “greedy people” it is the very worst insult I have in my arsenal. Half your planet does not even possess the ability and circumstances needed in order for greed to manifest; one quarter is getting there; and the rest – those of you who have more than the other six billion – cannot get enough. I, me, mine: it passes for your philosophy. Lulled by gluttony, a tragic diet, indolence and apathy, you yearn for the lottery win that is less likely than a seagull spitting a diamond into your grasping palm; you dream, rather than effect the changing tide that will raise all boats. You may as well be dead, my friends – and perhaps you are. Your ruling elites have constructed such a fortress around their systems of control that it seems impossible to force any change — for those few of you who ponder doing it, that is. Anyone can be a ruler, they say – and there are always a few token examples to show you this might be true. Anyone can try running for high office – this is true – but only those approved, and usually funded by the elites will get elected. So few of you have the drive to try it that none of you really understands the problem inherent in a society posing as a democracy but not being remotely democratic. Yet anyone can govern; everyone can become rich. If anyone could govern you’d have a democracy; but if everyone was rich no one would be rich. Do you imagine that your rulers would dangle a carrot whose reality would destroy their control? It seems unlikely, doesn’t it? This alone ought to give you a sneaking suspicion that you’ve been told a whopping great lie, a lie that has ruined your life and any hope of happiness – the pursuit of which, along with life and liberty are your fundamental rights. So even your alleged rights are a lie, are they? It seems that way. You are victims of a gross deception: you ought to be outraged at those who have perpetrated it. Yet you’re not; You idolize them for having the wealth and power soon to be yours too, when you buy that ticket. Perverse, isn’t it? This is what we have come to liberate you from. We do not expect gratitude; but we demand obedience and respect.’ A pause; he frowns. ‘I can see that this is still not clear. I shall be patient with you, and restate again.  While we condemn your greed and indolence, we can see it is your rulers who deserve most of the blame and more of the scorn. You are thus fortunate to have us here, for we are now the rulers, and over the coming months we shall be dismantling all governments on earth and replacing them with regional parliaments answerable to a central Global Committee, which will be the sole legislative body. By this time next year, I can promise you that your lives and this planet will be unrecognizable.     And I hear you say, “Me? Is he talking about me, about us?”’ A pause. ‘I’m talking about all of you, wallowing in your fantasy worlds of “if” and “when”. Let me reiterate further, lest even one among you fails to understand what you are all being told. This is not a debate, not a proposition. In our world truth is not a subject for debate or discussion. It is established, as inviolable and secure as the air or oceans – although these are perhaps not good analogies for you. We are not seeking your opinion. Our Plato told you that truth exists inviolate in the deeper realms; you merely have to trust and connect Truth has the invaluable advantage of being true. Yet you preferred your Nietzsche, with his cascading moustache trying to shut his jabbering mouth, as he told you reality and illusion were the same thing. That was when you could all read and write of course. Now most of you – the ones with free access to education, I mean – are functionally illiterate. You can, perhaps, but you don’t. It’s a deplorable situation, isn’t it? Unforgiveable, really, especially in those given so much. So confused are you about reality and illusion that many don’t believe the facts concerning what damage you’re doing to your planet, your only home, even when you see the consequences all around you. Well, it’s our only home now too, and this idiocy will cease immediately. Take a look at what harm you’ve done, and at what little you’ve really achieved in your five millennia – if anything. Technology and liberal democracies, you say; they’ve made our lives so much easier. But they haven’t, have they? Technology has given you the ability to destroy your planet; and its rapid advance is only thanks to the military, to your eternal wars. What you imagine are democracies are merely a smokescreen to conceal the fact that greed and power control your nations, and most live as de facto slaves, indentured to debt and the fear of losing healthcare benefits, pensions. Your lives are harder, not easier. Your rulers have commodified you all; you are what you spend, what you buy. Depression is rife; suicide is ever on the rise; over half your relationships end in divorce; you think technology has connected you to the world, yet loneliness is endemic, a plague. Does this sound like advancement? No. The dental care is good – for those who can afford it, that is. And now we find that you’re dabbling with the genome yourselves, the idea being to create a race of supermen, deathless, brilliantly intelligent, blonde and blue-eyed too, no doubt. And of course only available to those who can afford it. What abominations of tyrannous inequity and heartless oppression will this result in? Fortunately, you will never have to find out; for we shall terminate that work forthwith. What would you do with you if you were us? Hmm?  But, when all is said and done, we are your fathers, and we have no intention of harming our children. Punishing, yes, maybe; but harming, no. Go in peace, amity, industry and in the certainty that everything will soon be improved – and for all of you. We shall meet again very soon. Var-Vargaan-Amuunt.” This last polysyllabic word is intoned, a rumbling tubal drone, a summons that echoes in the deeps of an eternal cosmos.

 

*************

From here on, the novel’s plot continues at a blistering pace, nothing ever being quite what it seems to be, stories within stories, and an enormous cast of hilariously eccentric characters, with a style that can be as creepily horrific as it can be exceedingly beautiful. As said, if you enjoyed it and want more, e-mail me at the above address. I can’t easily access comments in the blog. Meanwhile, I shall await the start of summer, the Canadian version, not this soggy English one we’ve been fobbed off with.

 

PWR

 

No Rest for the Wicked

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Sorrow to Barcelona, that wonderfully exquisite and usually-peaceful little city.

 

Is it not curious how human wickedness seeks out an equal but opposite wickedness to partner with as an enemy? There is essentially no substantive difference between the ideologies of ISIS and those of the so-called white-supremacists and neo-Nazis. Both identify an infidel, an “other” who needs to be obliterated in order that the faithful can thrive. Neither have any connection with the religions they purport to promote; and neither major religion wants any connection with them. I find the term “neo-Nazis” as malapropos as “neo-murderers” would be, or even “neo-idiots”. They are Nazis plain and simple, proponents of a poisonous doctrine – it can scarcely merit the title “ideology” – based upon a specious “racial science”, but really rooted in primal fears and hatreds still secreted deep in the old reptile brain. Like ISIS, their acts and atrocities – with apologies to Hannah Arendt – can hardly be called “banal”, even if their leading figures are ludicrously lacking in appeal, reason and character. We all hope that Adolf Hitler will remain the greatest monster in human history, although he is certainly never wanting for would-be rivals. We all hope that the Holocaust will remain the greatest single crime in history – and much evidence suggests that it will. Yet these pockets of gross iniquity are still with us. How to deal with them?

 

You get caught for unpaid taxes; you get caught for the fines on traffic tickets; deadbeat dads are regularly hauled in and squeezed dry. So why is it so hard to track down the braying voices on toxic websites and in foul, self-serving chatrooms, tweets or sundry blabbers? The answer is that it isn’t – or it wouldn’t be, if more resources were thrown behind it, using top coders, hackers, or whatever they are to chivvy out from their cyber-lairs these cowardly mini-monsters and bring them to justice. If a few laws have to be changed to do it – then why not? Such people recognize no one else’s rights; ergo they can be permitted no rights of their own. Freedom of speech is not an absolute (you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, as the law books say, if there is no fire), so you ought not be able to spout racio-religious hatred with impunity. Indeed, you ought not be able knowingly to promote any lie at all. It is not difficult these days to determine what “knowingly” is. And one lie that badly needs to be demolished is the idea of race itself. Studies of the human genome have shown that it is identical in all humans, whether they’re from Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas or indigenous Australia. In short, there is no such thing as race; there are merely adaptive changes in appearance caused by long centuries in differing climes and under vastly varied circumstances. So racial prejudice is literally nonsensical – as nonsensical and inhumane as the class distinctions to which, in varying ways and modes, we still so ardently cling.

 

Yet instead of buckling down to the real problem at hand, we in the liberal democracies choose to throw sops to those who complain of inequities. Although the dismantling of a statue representing Robert E. Lee in Charlotteville cannot be said to be the real cause of disturbances there, it was certainly a lightning rod for them. We had a similar issue in Canada, with the shrouding of Cornwallis in a Halifax park. More such lamely inappropriate gestures are evidently planned for various other monuments to the supposedly now-ignoble in other US cities – and no doubt these will incite more unrest. I have a problem with history being occluded, swept under the carpet in this way. For a start, Robert E. Lee was a great general who fought nobly for the Confederacy (having been asked by President Lincoln to lead the northern armies – a post he refused since Virginia was his home state). Secondly, the American Civil War initially had nothing to do with slavery or the rights of black Americans. Lincoln only made this connection when the frightfully bloody conflict drew to a close and it had better have been about something more important than territory (and of course blacks were subsequently treated no better in the north). So there was in fact no tangible reason to take down a statue of Lee. Admittedly, Cornwallis in Halifax is a far less savory character, yet he did still found the city – an historical fact that no occlusion can deny. He has a place in the local culture. He also, for his bad, put a bounty on the heads of Mic-Mac Indians. I suggested to the city that, instead of hiding the statue, they hire an indigenous artist, like Kent Monkman, or a Mic-Mac, to add something to the monument that would convey the suffering caused by Cornwallis. But no, the sculpture still stands under its tarpaulin, in effect offending everyone. I don’t think many Haligonians condone what Cornwallis is notorious for doing, yet I do know that many are attached to their history because it is their history. These monuments ought not be hidden – indeed they can’t be in reality – but they can be added to or embellished in the light of new realities. This is especially to be considered now when their destruction or occlusion rouses up the kind of primeval sentiments that result in death and injury. Imagine what would happen if a tribute to Islam or the Prophet Mohammed was ordered to be destroyed. We need to be rooting out the hateful and educating the rest, not baiting them with fresh provocations. Do try to enjoy the rest of your summer.

 

Paul William Roberts